By Josh Eldridge, Consultant, London
Almost two weeks into the short campaign and it is fair to say that energy policy has been conspicuous by its absence. The precipitous fall in the oil price and subsequent drop in energy bills has served to take some of the heat out of the cost of energy debate, just as the Coalition’s switching rhetoric was wearing thin and politicians’ persecution of energy sector ‘fat cats’ was starting to look increasingly self-serving. Labour’s polarising and agenda-setting price freeze commitment has further lost its sting against the backdrop of lower prices and has been labelled a price cap by coalition opponents.
Energy and the environment have hardly been big ticket issues during the campaign so far. For instance, in last week’s seven-party leaders debate climate change was only mentioned once (briefly, by the Greens) and even fracking only received the one mention, albeit by a heckler. Largely this is down to the fact that they do not make for particularly compelling doorstep narratives. However, the main parties possess a common understanding of the energy trilemma facing the UK and it is likely that consensus on the broad framework inhibits distinct policy positions. For instance, there is a general agreement on the need to decarbonise the electricity system, build more capacity and increase our energy independence, and to grasp the ‘low-hanging fruit’ that is energy efficiency. Although it is important to note that this consensus does not stretch to specific policy measures, and quarrels over competing visions of a reformed energy market will continue long after the CMA’s inquiry concludes.
The Conservatives lack a clear direction of travel on energy policy, and thus have no compelling story to tell. This partly explains the lack of campaigning activity on energy policy or environmental issues, but with the best chance yet of securing a global deal on climate change coming up at COP21 in Paris in December, the lack of focus is worrying. In a recent essay on energy policy under the coalition, Dieter Helm suggested that the Coalition had overseen the return to a level of state intervention not seen since the days of the Central Electricity Generating Board, British Gas and the nationalised industries. Helm laments the apparent abandonment of the more competitive, liberalised structure of energy policy in Britain since the 1990s. Consequently, the Conservative Party finds itself in a state of confusion regarding energy policy.
In a sustained campaign since Miliband’s 2013 party conference price freeze announcement Labour have sought to position energy as a key election issue. The party has successfully kept the debate focused on the cost of energy, and with the publication of their ambitious energy efficiency green paper, have further emphasised their policy focus on the fuel poor. Miliband, an ex-Energy Secretary, is a friend of the environmental community and has clearly set the party’s line on climate change, agreeing to a goal of net zero global emissions in the second half of this century.
In 2010 Cameron famously sought to market the Coalition as the ‘greenest government ever’, triggering a wave of cautious optimism from the environmental community that soon turned to disappointment, then serious distaste. The party is conflicted when it comes to energy generation development, handcuffed by the nimbyism of their rural support base when it comes to both renewable development and shale gas exploration. Divisions within the party continue to prevent a clear narrative from emerging.
Despite the PM’s apparent conviction regarding the serious threat posed by anthropogenic climate change, there are still a number of climate sceptics within his party, alongside a number of vociferous opponents of wind energy. At the top of the party there appears to be a considerable gap between Dave and George’s conceptions of energy policy. The PM talks a good game and seems keen to develop a centre right vision for a low carbon economy based on free trade and clean technology. The Chancellor does not share this climate concern, was responsible for diluting ECO (the flagship energy efficiency scheme), and prioritises rapid, high-carbon infrastructure development and fracking.
Especially in the wake of ex-DECC Minister and then climate change envoy Greg Barker, the Tories do not possess an authentic spokesperson for the low carbon agenda, despite Matt Hancock and Amber Rudd’s best efforts. Indeed, should coalition 2.0 become a reality, it will be interesting to see who will take the reins at DECC. Would a Conservative led coalition government be happy to once again cede energy policy (and particularly the green agenda) to the Lib Dems? And if so, to anyone besides Ed Davey? The rise of the minor parties will flavour the energy debate in the next Parliament, with UKIP and the Green’s opposing views presenting a challenge to the existing consensus and forcing the main parties to adopt more distinct positions.