Navigating the Marxist Universe of energy policy in 2017

By Dr Will Eadson

‘I know that the right hon. Gentleman would like to live in some sort of Marxist universe in which it is possible to control all these things, but he needs a basic lesson in economics … This is not a policy; it is a gimmick’

(Prime Minister David Cameron speaking about a proposal by the Labour Party to cap energy tariffs in October 2013)

Energy policy is not a key General Election battleground. There were some flickers of it early on in the campaign, but since then it has barely been mentioned in the final phase of election campaigning as the major parties double down on the repetition of their key campaign phrases.

Yet an affordable, secure and low carbon energy system is essential to the UK’s future prosperity.  It is also an important part of the debates about Brexit. Energy systems in the UK are owned by a variety of EU-based firms and governments and are also increasingly physically linked through grid interconnectors between nations.

Viewing energy policy across the different election manifestos shows the stark differences between the Parties’ political standpoints.  For example, the Conservatives and Ukip are both disastrously keen to remove environmental legislative ‘burdens’ and are enthusiastic about fracking for shale gas, while Labour promise to protect environmental legislation and ban fracking outright (as do the Greens and Liberal Democrats).

What is particularly interesting in the two major parties’ manifestos however is the shared view that energy markets require direct state intervention, marking a rapid shift in position in some cases. The Conservatives for instance plan to introduce some caps on domestic energy tariffs (as do Labour), something denounced as being from a ‘Marxist Universe’ by David Cameron in 2013. The Labour Party go further than in recent years too,  promising to make steps towards renationalising energy supply, starting with the introduction of new state-owned local energy companies.

But both Labour and Conservative promises on state intervention seem somewhat ham-fisted. They seem equally unable to work out what a positive interventionist role for government might be within today’s complex energy systems. Energy price caps do little to address the structural problems that make energy markets ‘weak and unstable’. And new state-owned energy companies potentially merely add to the many (not the few) tariffs available to confused energy users who do not want to be forced to view energy as a market good.

At the same time as the slightly clumsy re-emergence of the state in directly interfering with energy markets, the role of civil society has drifted off the radar for the two main Parties.  Neither the Labour nor the Conservative manifestos allow for a mixed energy economy whereby civil society collectives acting within, with and separately from government can be important players in creating democratic, locally accountable, affordable, low carbon energy systems. The dramatic growth of community energy in the UK, heralded by the Coalition government as part of its centrepiece localism and ‘Big Society’ drives, now seems forgotten by the Conservatives. The answer on both sides is purely about Big State v Big Markets, which is unhelpful in attempting to work with (a) the reality of the UK energy system’s interdependency with that of other nations and (b) the potential for diverse sources of innovation and collective endeavour that, given the right conditions, could be an important part of a fair, democratic and environmentally sustainable energy future.[1]

[1] Delve beyond Labour and Conservative manifestos and there are slightly more nuanced offers from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Dr Will Eadson is a researcher in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research. His main research interests focus on government policy and the role of local and city-regional organisations in leading the transition to a low carbon economy. He tweets at @Will_Eadson .

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