And it’s your move, Mr. Miliband.
Yes, that’s right, Messrs Cameron and Clegg have struck back against the Labour onslaught with their latest shiny policy – £1,000 for homebuyers to spend on energy-saving measures. This comes, of course, in the wake of several weeks’ vicious fighting on the subject of energy prices – a subject which has become the key battleground in the war for cost of living. Since the Labour Party Conference, when Miliband revealed his flagship energy price freeze policy, the conflict has seemingly been going his way. Will the Coalition’s latest offering sufficiently bedazzle the public into rushing headlong into the encircling blue-and-yellow arms?
Energy policy is a dangerous area for the major political parties. They must strike a delicate balance between keeping costs down for consumers, many of whom are struggling to keep pace with the rising cost of fuel, and appearing to be ‘green’ in the face of a growing minority of climate change sceptics. The Conservative Party in particular, having rebranded itself with its stylish tree logo under David Cameron, has a very thin line to toe – it cannot afford to forget entirely its pledge to be the ‘greenest government ever’, but neither can it risk the wrath of the mass media which any kind of environment-linked tax increase would surely bring upon it. Osborne has toyed with the idea of abolishing the so-called ‘Green Tax’ (a levy on energy bills accounting for roughly 14% of your annual cost) in a bid to reduce energy costs and keep pace with Labour, but the UK as a whole has its own targets to meet – an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, based on 1990 levels. It will be difficult, if not nigh-on impossible, for the Coalition to make the necessary improvements towards this target and still cut the levy.
So in that case, surely the new handouts are, politically, a massive triumph for the government? A thousand pounds isn’t a lot of money on a macroeconomic scale, but to individual households it can be the difference between being in fuel poverty and not. It will be popular with the poorer sections of society that the government has previously had a rocky relationship with and the fact that these grants are being given to spend on energy-saving measures means the government looks ‘green’ into the bargain. Success!
Well, perhaps. But I think it is much more likely that the policy will be lost into the general melee surrounding energy prices and the wider cost-of-living debate. The thing is, a similar policy already exists – the ‘Green Deal’. This initiative is designed to allow businesses and households to become more eco-friendly and pay back the costs of the necessary modifications over time rather than up front. In principle, the Green Deal is a commendable idea, but there’s a snag: no-one wants it. In total, by the end of August – a full nine months after the scheme launched – only 677 households had asked to proceed with the scheme. Of these, just twelve had had the energy-saving measures actually installed. Twelve. Take the UK average of 2.3 persons per household and that means an uninspiring 0.00004% of the population have felt the benefits of the scheme. Now that’s a figure that even Alastair Campbell would find it difficult to put a positive spin on.
The new policy, being as it is a straightforward grant rather than a cunningly-disguised loan, is likely to prove more popular but still there is no fire in it. The Coalition simply doesn’t have the drive that Labour – long stuck drifting in the doldrums of politics – seems to have finally regained. Miliband’s energy price freeze may have been reckless and arguably irresponsible – given its timing – but it has certainly been popular, and has generated much comment in both mainstream and social media. By contrast, the triumvirate of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg have made a number of comments and announced several new policies, but have failed to make much impact at all. The winds of political fortune are still blowing very much Mr Miliband’s way – the question is, can he keep it that way? On the subject of green conservatism meanwhile, the jury is out. The Energy Wars will likely rage on for some time to come.