One of the Conservatives’ great victories in government has been to portray the party as on the side of consumers against behemoth and sometimes inefficient producers. Take education, where Michael Gove has set to tackling the ‘Blob’ of the education establishment on behalf of parents who want real choice over their children’s education. Or the NHS, where Jeremy Hunt has styled himself as the patients’ champion, standing up to a resistant NHS establishment on standards of care.
But this isn’t the case on every front. Today’s Commons statement on energy bills by Ed Davey underlined the struggle the Coalition faces in presenting a convincing case for being a consumer champion when it comes to the cost of living. Davey is a Lib Dem, but it is scarcely fair to blame him for this, as he has been largely ineffectual in the talks over the government’s response to Labour’s energy bills campaign. He made a decent stab in the Commons at defending the deal that has been struck between his party and the Tories which will reduce the average household bill next year by £50 on average. He told MPs:
‘This help for people with energy bills is being achieved while we maintain and extend support for the fuel poor, while we continue to back green energy and by boosting energy efficiency.’
That as may be, but given Labour has managed to make a pledge on freezing energy bills that is the equivalent of promising free maternity leave for everyone buying a puppy (i.e. very nice-sounding indeed but not possible or desirable in the long run), it is quite easy for the party to deride these efforts from ministers (who have to propose something that has at least a small chance of working) as not good enough. The tack that Shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint chose today was not so much that these measures weren’t good enough – although she did also make that argument, telling MPs that ‘even if the companies do pass on the reductions from the cut in levies, the average household’s bill will actually be £70 higher than last winter’ – but that the government wasn’t bothering to stand up to the producers on behalf of the consumers. She said:
‘Can he confirm that in the package of measures announced today, there was not a single measure that will cost the energy companies a single penny? Hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money being spent, energy companies helping fewer households with energy efficiency and yet people’s bills will still be higher this winter than last and the energy companies are still allowed to carry on overcharging people.’
As her parting shot, Flint added:
‘Whatever the Secretary of State says today, if we genuinely want to get people’s bills down, nothing less than a price freeze and action to stop the energy companies overcharging will do.’
Now, regardless of whether Labour’s price freeze is a good idea or not, Flint’s point here is that Coalition politicians have hardly tried to make the energy companies cry in their negotiations. Supporters of a free market would like to make them cry by introducing more competition, which Davey and colleagues are trying to do using the new annual competition test, rather than intervening in the market as Labour plans to do. The Tories will fight their own corner on this, leaving Davey to argue that the Lib Dems kept the Coalition green. But as they do, Conservative ministers must create a narrative that suggests this deal has been wrought out of loyalty to the consumers, not the producers. Otherwise this problem that sprang out of Labour’s autumn conference will linger for the winter, too.Tags: Autumn Statement 2013, Caroline Flint, Cost of living, Ed Davey, energy bills, Labour, UK politics