Miliband's speech is an attempt to differentiate Labour from the increasingly unpopular Tory pro-business policies, which were also followed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were in government
It doesn’t take much to get the energy companies worked up. Any restraint on their untrammelled right to make as much profit as they possibly can will do the trick. Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if he wins the election in 2015 has been met with outrage, threats of power cuts, investment strikes, and mutterings about the loss of supplies from overseas.
The big companies have had their own way for so long, and have felt themselves so immune to any sanction (whether from government, unions or public opinion), that they are simply incredulous at being told that an elected government might decide that they had been making far too much profit.
Not that they are being asked to hand any of it back: just to freeze prices for less than two years. Already there are suggestions that prices could rise much higher in the run up to the election in order to offset the effect of such a price freeze.
Rising prices for most of us
Wage and price controls were common in the 1960s and 1970s. At one point the Labour government introduced food subsidies in order to hold down prices.
But in the 21st century a different set of political expectations has developed. The wages of all public sector workers, and a high proportion of private sector workers, have been held down in recent years, leading to cuts in living standards. There has been absolutely no control over prices, which have risen faster than inflation for basic necessities such as energy, transport and food.
The resulting worsening of incomes for most, while inequality grows and the rich experience an unprecedented boom, is what has motivated Ed Miliband to move against the energy companies. While we are only seeing the beginning of the enraged protests from big business and media, and no doubt the Tories, it will prove popular with most people at a time when many working class households are paying £1500 to £2000 a year on heating, lighting and cooking.
Miliband and his advisers must have gone into this strategy with their eyes wide open. They know that this will lead to attacks on Labour for holding the country to ransom, preventing business from doing well, and attacking ‘free enterprise’. They know that the Tory press will repeatedly call him ‘Red Ed’, although in truth this is a very limited attempt to control big business and will encounter further obstacles before the election in 18 months time.
They have clearly decided to differentiate themselves from the very unpopular Tory pro-business policies, which were also followed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were in government.
Miliband forced to move
Miliband’s move in this direction is partly to please Labour’s traditional supporters, especially the trade unions who have become so disaffected in recent months over the rows about the Falkirk selection and funding. The unions will have warned of the possibility of greater ruptures if Labour delivers absolutely nothing in 2015. It is partly in recognition of the strong public antipathy to the profiteering and unaccountability of the neoliberal giants of big business, typified by the energy companies almost as much as by the banks.
Protests are also beginning to seep into mainstream Labour consciousness. It is hard to imagine Miliband pledging to abolish the bedroom tax without the country-wide protests which have accompanied its introduction. The vote at Labour conference to renationalise a privatised Royal Mail was no doubt strengthened by the opposition of the CWU. And the defeat of David Cameron in Parliament over the planned intervention in Syria registered that protest works.
Miliband’s pledges are welcome, if only a small proportion of what needs to be done to reverse the vicious policies of this government. And in some areas, most notably immigration, he makes concessions to a discourse which only aids the racists. But the shock with which his pronouncements have been greeted demonstrates that even quite small reforms can begin to challenge the suffocating consensus which decrees that the vast majority suffer while the rich and powerful are given ever more.
Pile on the pressure
These moves also demonstrate that Labour is capable of moving to put itself at the head of the growing discontent among working people and so benefiting electorally from that discontent. Miliband is under pressure from Labour supporters who are suffering, and trade union leaders and members who felt they got far too little from Labour’s previous terms of office.
But he will also be under pressure from big business, the media, the Blairites in his own party, and from some of his nervous allies. He can retreat on these and other issues if there is not the pressure from below.
The pressure needs to grow: from workers like the teachers, fire-fighters and post office workers who are planning strikes; from strikers such as those at Hovis who have scored a victory against zero hours contracts; from all the different campaigns against austerity, and from the movement. The demonstration against the Tories in Manchester promises to be large and militant, and it should be sending a message to Labour also, that we don’t want a continuation of these policies under a Labour government.
The People’s Assembly movement needs to continue to grow, to ensure that those who oppose all austerity have a loud and clear voice - and so they can mobilise to defeat government attacks.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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