Nationalisation is the best long-term option Ed Miliband’s proposed energy cost freeze is well-meaning but nowhere near what is required, argues Rob Griffiths
Ed Miliband tweaked the tail of a tiger when he threatened to freeze household energy prices if Labour wins the next general election.
He only pledged to do so for about 18 months in office, until the beginning of 2017.
But that was enough to drive the gas and electricity monopolies and their media mates into an immediate frenzy.
The “big six” companies that control 98 per cent of the domestic market would still make enormous profits for their shareholders.
Indeed, the nearer we come to a possible Labour government, the higher they will raise their prices in anticipation.
They will also seek other ways to continue screwing their customers into the ground, such as higher standing and service charges.
But Miliband’s proposal could still bring some relief to millions of hard-pressed customers.
He and his Labour shadow ministers have also pledged a host of other measures to assist the low paid, young workers, benefit claimants, rail travellers, house-seekers and the like.
They want the wealthy and big business to pay their “fair share” to help pay for such progressive policies.
It’s all part of Miliband’s vision of a “One Nation Britain” based on “responsible capitalism.” He believes that the energy, housing, financial and labour markets can be reformed in order to benefit the millions as well as the millionaires.
Yet almost everywhere capitalism and its markets are failing to solve society’s most fundamental economic, social and environmental problems.
The economic crisis compounded by the 2007-8 financial crash has wasted human, technical and financial resources on a gigantic scale.
In Britain alone, public funds worth £1,350 billion have been committed to bailing out the financial system — enough to fund a massive programme of investment in health, education, housing, public transport and renewable energy, creating two million new jobs.
The energy market dominated by nine oil and fuel monopolies has utterly failed to provide fair prices or to invest in new production and storage capacity.
One of the myths being peddled by the big six is that they need higher prices to finance extra investment.
The reality is that this is usually funded by new share or bond issues or from borrowing.
Last year, for example, British Gas owners Centrica devoted 61 per cent of its final operating profit — after tax and depreciation provision — to shareholder dividends.
Payments per share have risen by 34 per cent over the past four years.
Centrica’s fresh capital investment consisted almost entirely of purchasing existing assets and capacity from other companies in Britain, Norway and the US with borrowed money.
Almost nothing was spent on building new gas storage capacity, where Britain lags behind much of western Europe.
In fact, Centrica has just announced that, in the absence of government subsidies, it is scrapping plans for two new storage projects.
Shell and BP minimise tax liability in Britain by channelling money through scores of subsidiary and shell companies in offshore tax havens.
One of the big six, RWE npower, was recently found out using a Maltese subsidiary to manipulate interest payments and reduce its corporation tax bill in Britain to zero — despite making hefty profits here.
Calling for more “competition” in the energy market only means increasing the number of corporate crooks at the top table.
Splitting the production and distribution operations of the big six companies — something they already do themselves — will not stop them using “cut-outs,” tax havens, transfer pricing and other fiddles to avoid tax.
Scrapping Ofgem, Ofwat and the other feeble regulators that provide a fig leaf for rampant profiteering in the privatised industries is pointless, if the same tame industrialists, academics and top bureaucrats are then appointed to replace them.
The revolving doors between company boardrooms, government ministries, advisory boards and regulators have to be bricked up.But the only sure way to root out the greed, corruption, waste and short-termism in Britain’s energy and transport sectors is by taking them back into public ownership. Labour could take a step in this direction now by declaring its intention to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, Royal Mail and the probation service.
Not that renationalisation should mean repeating the shortcomings and mistakes of the past.
Next time around, there should be real worker participation in nationalised enterprises, with no superprofit contracts and subsidies for the private sector.
Recent Labour announcements to impose an extra levy on the banks, halt a further cut in corporation tax and raise taxes on those receiving more than £150,000 a year should be welcomed.
But investing in publicsector house-building and restoring the value of pensions and welfare benefits will require more radical measures, such as a wealth tax on the super-rich and a transaction tax on financial speculation in the City of London.
Last week the Labour leadership showed itself willing to upset bankers, energy moguls, landowners and even the right-wing tabloids.
But Miliband and co will not embrace public ownership or full restoration of Britain’s welfare state for fear of offending the “troika” — the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the US-led International Monetary Fund.
Like some deluded trade union leaders, the Labour leadership still dreams of the EU ushering in a “social Europe.” This, despite the fact that the basic EU treaties enshrine big business market principles and entrench the position of anti-democratic institutions such as the commission and the ECB.
This is why — however much a Labour victory is necessary at the next general election — we need a mass, broad-based movement against austerity and privatisation linked to the trade unions.
Building the People’s Assembly is vital not only to stop the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in its tracks.
We will also need it to exert pressure on a Labour government to carry out policies for a people’s Britain and not a bankers’ Britain.
Building a stronger and more influential Communist Party will help carry forward the fight on every front against austerity, privatisation, the EU and the drive to imperialist war.
Rob Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This article appears in the Morning Star