Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint speaks at the Labour conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour wins race to claim credit for energy market inquiry

While ministers were nowhere to be seen, Caroline Flint was on the Daybreak sofa.

After SSE's announcement yesterday that it will freeze energy prices until 2016 (which gifted Ed Miliband a winning line of attack for PMQs), this morning has brought another opportunity for Labour to argue that where it leads, others follow. Ofgem has revealed that it has ordered a full market inquiry into the big six providers to "consider once and for all whether there are further barriers to effective competition", a move that could ultimately lead to the break-up of suppliers. The investigation will be conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and is expected to last for 18 months. 

Here's the statement from Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan: "Ofgem believes a referral offers the opportunity to once and for all clear the air and decide if there are any further barriers which are preventing competition from bearing down as hard as possible on prices.

"I want to make sure that consumers are put at the heart of this market, so we will continue to take action to help consumers. This includes from today putting the industry on notice that any new serious breach of the rules which comes to light will be likely to attract a higher penalty from Ofgem."

Both Labour and the coalition will fight to take credit for this decision. It was Miliband who so prominently warned of a "broken market" in his conference speech last year, which prompted David Cameron to order a review of competition. In a letter leaked last month, Energy Secretary Ed Davey urged Ofgem to "think radically" as it considered whether to refer the sector for a full CMA probe. That is precisely what it has now done. But while both sides will now seek to claim victory, there was one clear winner this morning. 

While ministers were nowhere to be seen, Caroline Flint was on the Daybreak sofa hailing the decision as a vindication of Labour's radical stance. "It's a really frank admission that Ofgem hasn't been able to ensure that these companies work in a competitive way, it's an admission of failure, to be honest," she said. "I've been on this sofa the last couple of years saying that there's something seriously wrong here. It's why six months ago, pretty much six months to today, Ed Miliband announced that we would have a price freeze across the energy market and reform it fundamentally for the future." It was an hour and a half later that the coalition finally sprung to life with the Department of Energy and Climate Change issuing Davey's response

For Labour, the energy price freeze remains a valuable weapon. One shadow minister told me yesterday that private polling shows it remains the party's most popular policy, with high ratings from Conservative and UKIP voters even when Labour is explicitly referred to. While the government's decision to cut green levies and to ensure a full competition inquiry means it has a better defence against Miliband, he can still argue that more radical and faster action is needed. So long as bills continue to rise, the promise of a freeze will remain politically potent. But as I wrote yesterday, the refocus on this policy is a reminder that Miliband hasn't enjoyed a similar hit since. If he is to settle Labour nerves, he'll need to come up with a sequel soon. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue