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Power to the parish: Christians in the UK are challenging the government on energy prices

A new Christian campaign could help change the face of UK energy policy.

The following mission statement hardly shouts revolution from the rooftops: “We want to make tackling climate action as normal as the flower rota.”

But a new initiative from the Christian community – The Big Church Switch – could pose the most effective challenge yet to the government’s regressive energy agenda. 

Over the last nine months, the Conservatives have systematically savaged the UK’s raft of green legislation. Insulation schemes have been slashed, taxes on renewable energy have been hiked, and subsidies for solar ended – all in the name of reducing household energy bills.

Numerous groups have called time on this behaviour. Campaigners, private enterprises, and even the government’s own advisors, have argued that investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency will bring down bills, not raise them. But none have made the message stick.

Now the Church has stepped in with its own campaign; one which gives the lie to the notion that energy supply cannot be both clean and cheap

The charities Christian Aid, and Tearfund have used their collective bargaining power to negotiate a deal that not only supplies “100 per cent clean electricity”, but does so cheaper than the average standard-variable tariff currently on offer from the “Big Six” energy providers.

Clergy across the country will be encouraging their congregations to make the change. Though anyone can take advantage of the offer simply by signing up on the campaign website.

“We think western governments are not doing enough on climate change. They think the electorate does not yet support action that will meet the Paris promises,” Ben Niblett from Tearfund told me. “So we need to show them that, yes, people are ready to change their behaviour.”

It is still not the cheapest option available: other, non-green, deals are available for less than the Big Switches’ annual £824 (for a typical household). Some also believe that prioritising energy efficiency is a better way to lower both emissions and costs. “The cheapest energy unit is the unit you don’t use,” says the director of Ebico, a provider with a focus on reducing fuel poverty.

Yet the scheme proves that better balances can be found than those big business is currently offering – and that the government is too often leaving people with little option but to take.

Like the five stones David used to defeat Goliath, here are five ways the scheme could help change energy policy for the better:

1. No more misrepresentation: The government’s insistence on prioritising price does not tally with what the public says it wants. A recent Attitudes Tracking survey from the Department of Energy and Climate Change showed that 78 per cent of the public overwhelmingly support the use of renewable energy.

2. No more subsidy hypocrisy: In early 2015, it was reported that the UK provided 300 times more subsidy (in export credits) to fossil fuels than to renewables. Christian Aid has therefore also commissioned research that will explore the full extent of this trend.

3. No more public deception: Last year the government promised insulation for 1 million homes, while failing to mention that they've overseen an 80% slide in insulation rates.  

4. No more Crony Corporatism: The wholesale price of gas and oil is plummeting, yet the prices passed on by the large energy companies have barely moved. This scheme could make the government's tie-ups with big-energy look much less attractive.

5. No more inertia: It is hoped the campaign will help normalise green energy consumption in the same way that the Church's Fair Trade campaign did for the Fair Trade label. And some hope it will go even further: an officer from Switched On London would like to see private energy companies bypassed altogether, in favour of publically owned initiatives.

Only time will tell how far the campaign's influence will reach. But in Waterloo, London, Revd Giles Goddard believes it will make all the difference to grassroots action. “A lot of my congregation are from Uganda, where we are already seeing the devastation climate change can cause. They might not have much themselves, but they want to help", he explains. "And this scheme will help them to do that. They know that this is about justice.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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