From the party conference: Forget bankers, energy bosses are the new villains

Ed Miliband was Secretary of State for DECC and a policy geek of Vulcan proportions, so he knows better than almost anyone in politics the implications of an energy price freeze on investor confidence and the prospect of black-outs.

Picture Credit: Thinkstock
Picture Credit: Thinkstock

The vocal screech and shroud-waving from energy companies has dominated the headlines and, it might be feared, could threaten the Labour leader’s polling on economic competence.

But the team crowded into his conference-speech prep room have clearly made a brutal calculation on the electoral impact of this eye-catching announcement.

They have calculated that the price freeze might horrify Financial Times leader-writers, but the consumer groups are high-fiving and toasting his name at impromptu office parties.

Any damage to the competence figures, he has argued to himself, will be made up by the enormous gratitude felt by households who are fuming about energy price hikes.

Westbourne’s research on public attitudes to energy prices earlier this year made eye-watering viewing for energy company bosses.

Energy has replaced immigration as the dominant, unprompted subject of choice for focus groups participants (we ended up running the stopwatch to count how quickly consumers brought up energy bills). And energy bosses have replaced bankers as the villain of the piece.

And it is only going to get worse for energy companies. We are heading into the traditional season for energy-boss-bashing as the companies prepare for the clocks to go back (26 October) and announce a hike in the nation’s tariffs, widely expected to be around 10 per cent.

Although fracking offers the prospect of stable prices at a remote future date, the reality between now and the election is two winters of painful price rises for the second-largest household cost for many voters.

In Brighton, many feel buoyed by this piece of hard-nosed, Brownian realpolitik. It is the type of move that led Brown to leave the Tories to deal with the 50p tax, with horrible electoral consequences and a knock-on effect on their wider reform agenda.

Tough, brutal, knockabout politics of the sort that were missing this summer.

There are others who despair that the compact with the City, which was a building block of the New Labour consensus broken for short-term political gain, and a swerve down this socialist cul-de-sac will have catastrophic effects on the party’s reputation for competence.

These are the people who are singing the old cockney rhyme, often heard in the tree-lined avenues of north London: "My Old Man’s a Marxist, He Wears a Marxist’s Hat, He wears Old Corduroy Trousers, And He lives in a £2m Primrose Hill flat".

James Bethell is director at Westbourne Communications.

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