by Atul Hatwal
And so it begins. Last night’s doubts about the leader’s speech, widely expressed in the bars and receptions of Labour conference, are crystallising into a genuine fear on what happens next for Labour. The newspaper headlines were appalling, the party is on the defensive and the Tories are jubilant.
In his address to Labour party conference, Ed Miliband answered the widespread pleas for policy substance with two eye catching announcements – a two year price freeze on energy prices from 2015 and a target to build 200,000 homes. Both were well received in the hall, but are unravelling at an alarming pace.
The urge to act in a clear and unequivocal way on energy prices is understandable. It hardly bears repetition that soaring energy bills are an enormous problem for households. But at the moment the public don’t believe that either the Tories or Labour will do anything to help.
Polling conducted for Labour Uncut by YouGov shows that voters narrowly place greater trust in Ed Miliband and Labour over David Cameron and the Tories, to keep gas and electricity prices down, by 21% to 15%. However, the majority – 51% – trust neither to help with these bills.
In this context, a firm pledge to freeze prices will likely persuade sceptical voters that Labour will take effective action.
But, it is a big step to impose price controls even for a limited period. Such a move is redolent of the prices policies of the 1970s Labour government and has sparked another argument with business.
The public might be supportive of a price freeze that punishes unpopular energy companies, yet equally wary of a party that is happy to intervene so heavily in the market and fearful of the threats of blackouts.
In the 2005 election, the Tories found that although voters liked their punitive rhetoric on immigration, it validated Labour’s broader charges that the Tories were a hard-right party who would merrily privatise the NHS and cut benefits for pensioners.
The danger for Labour is that the battle on energy prices might be won at the cost of losing the war on economic credibility. The Tory charges of Labour as a hard-left, anti-business party that cannot be trusted to manage the economy, are already filling the airwaves.
The problems with Labour’s new energy policy were echoed in the commitment to build 200,000 new homes each year of the new parliament.
Once again the problem to be solved was corporate malpractice, the target on this occasion being property development companies that hoard land rather than building on it. “Use it or lose it” was the rallying cry.
Although there is an issue with this type of behaviour, it is in no way the biggest barrier to building more homes. In the passages of Ed Miliband’s speech on housing, the big missing topic was money.
Research by Shelter has highlighted that there are 146,000 homes per year being delivered by the private sector and current government measures. To boost building by over 50,000 would require a direct capital investment from central government of £12bn.
This type of rhetorical sleight of hand, focusing on the failings of business while avoiding any talk of the enormous funding shortfall, is why the public are sceptical about either of the major parties’ ability to build more homes.
Polling conducted for Labour Uncut by YouGov shows that although Ed Miliband and Labour are just about more trusted than David Cameron and the Tories to build more homes (26% to 21%), the majority – 52% don’t trust either. 34% say neither will build more homes and 18% say they don’t know who they would trust.
Without a concrete pledge on funding, it is difficult to see how the 200,000 home target can be met and public scepticism countered.
Earlier this week, Labour Uncut launched a book, “Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why” which charts a different route for Labour.
One where the route to lower household energy bills involves a fully funded pledge for £1000 of energy efficiency improvements to over 3m homes. Where a target of 200,000 new homes each year is backed by £12bn funding commitment replete with the detail of how the money will be found.
Rather than take the difficult choices to liberate funds for these important goals, Ed Miliband has chosen the path of least resistance in targeting big bad business. It’s a message that plays well to the party faithful, but the next election will be decided by an audience far larger than a conference hall in Brighton.
An audience that will have read their morning papers and had many of their fears about Labour confirmed.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut