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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.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.