“Public ownership of energy could deliver better investment in infrastructure, a faster switch to renewable energy, better staffing terms & conditions, & lower consumer bills.”Jon Trickett MP
This week’s crisis concerns gas supply. Its cause lies in Britain’s energy industry which was constructed in order to fulfill some Tory ideological dream of an entirely fabricated – and then rigged – market. It’s not as if this ought to be news to any government which is operating competently – I myself have been tweeting about it for months.
Of course, much energy supply is actually a natural monopoly so the model has never worked well. And when you consider the needs of humanity, already threatened by planetary crisis, the market model is wholly disastrous.
The government’s initial reaction to the latest developments was to demonstrate how this Conservative government’s class-led agenda is driving down living standards.
Consider first the idea that they simply bail out the companies which are in financial trouble. Then think about the cruelty of the same government’s reaction to the serious problems facing so many people living in poverty now facing a huge hike in gas prices. It’s ‘we are on your side’ when it comes to the corporations but it’s ‘you’re on your own’ when it comes to the poor.
The rise in wholesale gas prices has seen OFGEM increase the energy price cap by up to £139 this year – and by £153 a year for those on pre-payment meters. That means bills rising for everyone, and rising the most for those often on lowest incomes. The average 13% increase far outstrips pay rises across the economy.
This massive rise in people’s energy bills comes at the same time as the Conservatives force through the £1,040 a year cut to universal credit, the end of the coronavirus furlough scheme, and will be followed next year by an increase in national insurance payments.
Indeed the Resolution Foundation has identified that a section of the population is likely to be hit by both the energy price rise and the universal credit cut. Yesterday they pointed out that a far higher proportion of people on universal credit will be subject to the higher energy rise for those pre-payment meters. That’s compared to those who can afford quarterly tariffs, who will face a lesser increase in their bills.
All of these changes combined hit those on low incomes the hardest and demonstrate the Conservatives’ class-led politics.
Whenever we talk in abstractions, it is perhaps too easy to forget the individual tragedies which lay behind the numbers. This is not so easy as an MP. I am intensely aware of elderly constituents in winter wrapped up in blankets during the day trying hard to stay warm or going to bed in the afternoon through to morning in an effort to stay warm. In a wealthy country like ours such suffering is a shameful reminder that our great wealth is hoarded by a few, whilst there are many with little or no access to any form of money often for days or weeks at a time.
They created the private energy market through the sell-off of British Gas in 1986 and privatisation of the electricity boards in 1990. They set up the private energy sector and it’s this private model that is ripping people off.
Only this year we saw that British Gas doubled its half year profits to £172m, whilst it increased consumer energy bills and at the same time pursued a disgraceful hire and refire campaign within its own highly-skilled workforce. The very first female gas worker who they employed, was herself subject to this exploitative practice.
The Conservatives are prepared to sacrifice those working the hardest to make ends meet and grind them into greater poverty. Meanwhile billionaires’ wealth is left untaxed and privatised utilities continue to pay dividends to shareholders.
The regular rise in energy bills explains why the public is fed up of being ripped-off. According to multiple polling companies, support for public ownership has increased in recent years. Last year, a poll by Survation found 63% supporting public ownership of utilities, including 54% of Conservtive voters.
That’s why Labour advocated restoring energy transmission to the public sector in the 2019 election, and why there is still strong support for removing profiteering from the sector today.
Energy is a public good. Everyone has to heat their home and stick on the kettle everyday. So it’s not right that private companies cream off hundreds of millions in profit for shareholders and executive pay.
Ed Miliband was right when he recently told Newsnight we believe in common ownership in the energy sector, just as Keir Starmer pledged to do as he sought to win the party leadership. He would do well to remember that.
Faced with the repeated crises which are brought about by the mad neo-liberal experiment which has been imposed on our country, and which always fall on working people, labour must now shed its timidity. Increased regulation and indeed public ownership of energy could deliver better investment in infrastructure, a faster switch to renewable energy, better staffing terms and conditions, and lower consumer bills.
And with those on low incomes facing a winter of financial hardship, next week at the Labour Party conference is exactly the moment to make an announcement.
It is the right thing to do morally and socially. And, by the way, there can be no doubt it would help to restore our polling position.