We have absorbed the narrative and enjoyed the dynamism, but the great challenge will now rest in its practical execution. In the run up to the next election, the crucial divergences between the major political parties will concern the conversion of their philosophy into practice. While the underpinning philosophy can lend itself to subtlety, its execution will inevitably be quite different.
We have only glimpsed forthcoming Labour policy this conference season, but perhaps enough to gauge its general direction and approach. From Caroline Flint, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, have emerged plans to abolish the present energy regulator, Ofgem, and impose greater regulation on the country’s retail energy market. And Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for civil society, and Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary, have called for more stringent requirements on the banks to deliver on transparency and to invest a proportion of profits in communities – much like the Community Reinvestment Act pioneered in the US.
All of which is very well for those footing the bills. But for the “one nation” philosophy to really succeed, Ed Miliband – and those of all parties and none – must complement such regulation with a far more ambitious agenda. Far beyond calls for a “responsible capitalism”, Miliband should push for a “one nation market” – a market that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.
Increased regulation of the energy retail market, for example, could see caps on energy bills and a relief for consumers, but will not in the long-term decentralise electricity distribution, or create greater retail competition to break up its supply. Policy should instead seek to grant “the many” the power to take hold of such markets and indeed open up the opportunity for communities and smaller groups to enter in.
As argued in a ResPublica paper published earlier this year, communities could themselves be perceived as the potential producers and owners, rather than simply passive consumers, of their electricity generation and supply. A recent growth in co-operative energy models and a greater interest in community shares, have really revealed the nation’s appetite for such widespread ownership and devolved investment to take place. “Responsible capitalism” may hold large energy companies to account, but a “one nation market” could turn a consolidated economy completely on its head.
Miliband’s “one nation” call, coupled with Jon Cruddas’s drive for a politics of the “common good” and a better “big society“, has opened up the opportunity for such an agenda to emerge. Turning the philosophy into transformative practice will now be the challenge, and may indeed be the pivot upon which the next election is won or lost.
Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica, and co-author of Re-energising Our Communities: Transforming the energy market through local energy production