Is Corbyn out of step on energy politics?

Is Corbyn out of step on energy politics?

Date: 20 August 2015

It’s funny how quickly things can change. In the wake of the general election, a mere three months ago, our campaign to push the UK government to support a more just and democratic energy system looked as if it might as well pack up and head to the pub for at least the next half decade. Exposing and challenging millions of UK aid money being used to support disastrous energy privatisation schemes in countries like Nigeria and pointing out the fuel poverty caused by a similarly failed neoliberal experiment in the UK seemed a somewhat fruitless task when power is held by a government who quite explicitly want to use the aid budget to promote big business interests, whose former leader was a global pioneer in privatising public services and who are doing all they can to make the poor poorer.

Yet the pledges of democratic reforms to the energy system announced by Jeremy Corbyn in the past couple of weeks have offered not only a refreshing reminder that there is an alternative but also the possibility of it becoming policy of a major political party.

Corbyn’s policies on energy and climate change include renationalising the National Grid, promoting renewable energy generation at community and municipal level and looking at energy pricing to ensure that the fuel poor don’t lose out. They reflect a conclusion that an increasing number of people are coming to: that corporate control of our energy systems has been a dismal failure and that if we want to achieve both social and environmental justice then more democratic control is essential.

From large-scale energy co-operatives in Costa Rica to the German towns and cities Corbyn’s manifesto describes taking back control of their local grid to deliver cheaper and cleaner power, there are many ways people can take control of energy resources to meet their needs while operating within the planet’s limits.

Interestingly, it’s not just ‘radical’ Corbyn who has surprised me on energy policy this year by acknowledging how dysfunctional our current energy system is and proposing concrete alternatives. Earlier this year, in the run-up to the general election, I attended a ‘Big Energy Debate’ hosted by the Guardian to which each of the political parties had been invited to send a representative to debate energy policy. The Liberal Democrats and Labour had sent Ed Davey (energy secretary) and Caroline Flint (shadow energy secretary) respectively, both of whom proceeded to defend a mildly reformed version business of usual in which the Big Six energy firms would be slightly more heavily regulated by Ofgem, subject to greater competition by making it easier to switch suppliers and, in the case of Labour, made to freeze already sky-high prices for a year and a bit.

Rather than send their own senior figure, the Conservative party was represented by backbench MP Phillip Lee, a member of the energy and climate change select committee. While clearly not following official party policy (and at the same time expressing support for highly regressive policies such as the bedroom tax), Lee was probably the most forward-thinking of the speakers on the main topic of the evening. He was frank that efforts to get workable competition amongst the energy companies that supply our power is doomed to failure as the system is a natural monopoly, and instead arguing that we need a real rethink of ownership of our energy system. While not advocating renationalisation, he pointed to examples of co-operatives in places like Scandinavia as a better model for control and ownership of energy.

While his rivals continue to cast Jeremy Corbyn as ‘stuck in the past’, advocating policies from decades ago and irrelevant in modern Britain, it’s arguably the lack of imagination, ambition or even coherent analysis amongst most Labour figures in the face of real attacks on the quality of life of millions of people in the UK that lost the party the general election and accounts for the lukewarm support for the other candidates in the leadership race.

In distancing themselves from Miliband-era policies like the energy price freeze, Crobyn’s rivals are failing to recognise that the party had correctly identified important concerns (like unaffordable fuel bills) for a large swathe of the UK population, yet the solutions the party were proposing (a short-term price freeze when prices were already too high) were inadequate. As a result, while a review of the Labour leadership candidates’ policies finds that all mention climate change at least in passing, Corbyn is the only one to acknowledge fuel poverty as a scandal affecting millions of households.

Similarly, while claiming to support a shift to power being held by the many not the few (perhaps she’s a secret Global Justice Now supporter?), Yvette Cooper dismisses Corbyn’s proposals for renationalisation as “switching control of some power stations from a group of white middle aged men in an energy company to a group of white middle aged men in Whitehall”. This misses the point − namely that removing control of resources and public services from the clutches of multinational corporations is the first step to genuine democratic control of the type that, presumably, she supports. Again, there are precedents: in Uruguay, the public energy company has delivered virtually universal electricity access, has come up with an ambitious plan to wean the country off fossil fuels and is now making efforts to reform the institution’s governance so that workers have a direct say in how it is managed.

Corbyn’s energy policies are definitely not perfect: he could go further by advocating a progressive pricing energy structure so that everyone is able to afford a basic allowance while those who use large amounts pay more per unit, and an end to cut-offs when people can’t afford their energy bills, as Fuel Poverty Action call for in their Energy Bill of Rights. His suggestions that in future new coal mines could be opened in the UK (if the resulting fuel was burnt using currently unworkable carbon capture and storage technology) conflicts with his commitment to keeping fossil fuels in the ground. And he wouldn’t go amiss following the advice of Bright Green blogger Mike Williamson on articulating a clearer political analysis of climate change.

But compared to the other leadership candidates, his approach is arguably the one most in tune with the public mood (two-thirds of the general population and over half of Tory voters think that the energy companies should be renationalised), takes on board new approaches to people controlling their own energy systems being pioneered in places like Germany, and recognises the injustice of the current set-up. Certainly from the point of view of Corbyn’s take on energy democracy, the Labour party’s frantic portrayal of him being out of step with the average punter seems to be pretty baseless.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn speaking at Global Justice Now’s Take Back Our World conference in February 2015.