by Jonathan Todd
Ed Miliband provided answers to some questions posed by Uncut in the book we launched at Labour conference. Less so, others.
We asked where the money will come from. He committed to 200,000 extra homes a year without – unlike David Talbot’s chapter in our book – making clear from where the extra public resources needed to deliver this will come.
Miliband did tell us where the money for his promised energy price freeze will come from, the companies themselves. It is an imponderable whether this will result in reduced profits for them or diminishment in the green investment that Miliband treasures.
It is clear, however, that without the costs of this investment, there would be greater scope for lower household bills. Whether this investment will sufficiently dampen the impacts of climate change to justify its hefty cost is another imponderable.
The incoming prime minister of Australia is among those who doubt it. The prime minister of this country will have noted this and knows that reducing the green push will increase the scope to minimise household bills before May 2015. If Cameron were to take this option, the energy firms will align with Cameron, as both leaders would be telling them to reduce prices but only one would be enabling them to reduce costs – assuming Miliband remains faithfully green.
The public may see their bills fall before 2015 – a record of delivery for Cameron, potentially to sit alongside a steadily improving economy. Rather than return him to office, the public would be asked to vote for a freeze in energy prices by a Labour party likely to be enamoured by the green lobby but less so by business, at least big business.
Miliband needs to get on the front foot about the assistance he has offered to small businesses, while considering exactly how wedded he is to imposing green costs on energy firms. Unless these small businesses become Labour advocates, the party risks being painted as anti-business. Without some flexibility on green costs, Miliband may risk Cameron achieving more on lower energy prices before he is even in a position to implement his freeze.
It would be hard, under this scenario, to imagine the public voting for Miliband’s promise over Cameron’s delivery and while big business may be somewhat less trusted than it was, they are likely to be more powerful advocates in 2015 than the green lobby. In an era of sharply constrained public budgets, politics is as much about who you choose to disappoint, as who you please. The big energy firms are Miliband’s chosen enemy but there is a way for Cameron to trump him on household bills if he’s prepared to make an enemy of the green lobby.
Cameron has the advantage of leading the party last to hold their conference, allowing him to recalibrate his remarks to Miliband’s. We’ll certainly hear more about Labour being an unaffordable risk – promising to take a further £800m from the bankers, as Ed Balls did, does little, perhaps even less, to take the sting out of this charge. In our book, we stress the importance of rendering this claim absurd but argue this will require difficult choices to bear down on spending.
The chapters from Paul Crowe, Kevin Meagher and myself emphasise that these reduced public budgets need not come at the expense of increased delivery. The further advantage enjoyed by Cameron is that he’s in a position to deliver. Not just on energy bills but totemic reforms already introduced: free schools and universal credit, for example. Notwithstanding some fundamental flaws in the design of these policies, especially universal credit, there remains a window of opportunity for Cameron to contrast whatever Miliband says, or doesn’t, on education and welfare with what he’s delivered.
Delivery is the follow through that matters for Cameron beyond conference. Even without an energy price offer to match Miliband, he’ll be well placed if he can maximise his record of delivery between now and May 2015. Britain would have done better, just under a different leader from that which Miliband anticipated this improvement. It’s often said post-Coulson that Cameron lacks an Alastair Campbell but the absence of a Michael Barber is the bigger threat to this future.
Campaign traction is the follow through that matters for Miliband. He wants to lead a mass movement against big energy. This will be spiked if Cameron is prepared to disappoint the green lobby. Miliband’s only option then to neutralise Cameron’s new energy price offer, would be through a diluted commitment to green infrastructure, or transfer his campaigning focus from an opposition to big energy to a unity with the green lobby.
Miliband should reflect whether such a transfer – though consistent with his political record and conference speech – is really best advised. The jam today of lower prices is likely to be more attractive to many than a green tomorrow.
Going much further on home insulation, as our book recommends, would reduce household bills and please the green lobby – a rare policy to unite Miliband’s stress on climate change and the cost of living. If Miliband were prepared to face up to some tough choices, he’d find the public resources to carry this forward, as well as fund his housing commitment. I know where he might look for suggestions.