After the conservative press responded to Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017 by branding him as a 1970s-style socialist and the energy companies warned of power blackouts, the Labour leader was called for the defence on the Today programme this morning.
To the former charge, he argued persuasively that it was Labour that was “the pro-competition party, the pro-market party” because it wanted “markets to succeed, not fail” by working “in the public interest”. To the latter, he said that on “any reasonable scenario”, the companies would be able to cope, implying that they were resorting to scare tactics. He conceded, however, that in the event of major price shocks, “companies could make their case to the government.”
On the danger of firms hiking prices in advance of the election in order maximise their profits, he replied: “we will make sure that this is a genuine freeze and we will take action to make sure that happens.” That implies that Labour would seek to peg prices to their 2014 level were companies to raise prices in 2015. Milband added that the freeze would not be extended beyond 2017 because he expected to have “reformed the energy market” by then.
One important test of a conference speech is whether it can withstand scrutiny the following day and Miliband ably cleared that hurdle this morning. Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral addresses, he came armed with signature policies that he was prepared to argue for. He has also adopted a notably softer and more measured speaking style.
By taking on the energy companies, Miliband is confident that he has picked a battle that can only have political benefits. In highlighting threats of blackouts from the sector, Tory MPs have walked straight into his trap by appearing to side with the companies over the consumers. Labour is confident that voters will agree that, in Miliband’s words, “the fundamental problem at the heart of the market is that wholesale prices go up and people pay more, and wholesale prices go down and people still pay more.”