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Blueprints for the state

In the UK,the outcry over energy prices could be the beginning of battles to come

Written by Rishabh Bhandari |
November 4, 2013 4:14:57 am

In the UK,the outcry over energy prices could be the beginning of battles to come.

It might be said that the successful thread in modern British politics lies in striving for bipartisanship and an appeal beyond a traditional support base. Yet sometimes,when a political theme acquires a direct emotional resonance with the electorate,parties revert to their ideological foundations and a dividing line between them can be discerned. One such theme has currently stirred a passionate debate. In recent weeks,a steep hike in UK energy prices,with the winter approaching,has exposed deep-seated political divisions. Against the backdrop of a fragile economy,it is clear that a squeezed electorate needs reassurance. What is also obvious is that in the run-up to the next election,as each party strives to appeal to its core supporters,the real challenge still lies in capturing the moderate centre-ground of British politics.

To begin with,the bosses from the UK’s six biggest energy firms were called to give evidence to The Energy and Climate Change Committee about recent price rises (some as high as 10 per cent) on October 29. The political undercurrent to this also stems from the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s controversial recent promise to freeze electricity and gas prices for 20 months if Labour is elected as the governing party at the next general election. Stark differences have begun to appear between the parties in framing a political response to an inefficient energy market. The Tories instinctively favour reforms to promote greater choice,competition and price transparency for consumers. In contrast,the Labour response remains rooted in a preference for state intervention and an old-fashioned prescription for statist price controls.

Beyond a debate about the energy market though,the differences between the parties might also been seen in terms of setting the political tone for the next general election campaign,which is less than two years away. Earnest strategising is already underway.

The Tory focus has been obvious over the past few months: a profligate Labour party that wrecked the exchequer should not be trusted to repair the mess. Prime Minister David Cameron has relentlessly set out his vision of a “land of opportunity” built on individual aspiration and a restructured state that enabled enterprise and recognised its own limitations. In contrast,Miliband has unabashedly made the case for a more interventionist state by focusing on the inequities of an economy where wages are not rising with prices.

Both leaders will be aware that greater challenges lie ahead. For Cameron,the risk lies in a fragile economic recovery that could be derailed easily. The concern over the rising energy prices only serves to underscore this anxiety among voters. In addition,the Tory party remains vulnerable to the critique that it often embodies the concerns of the affluent without due regard for the disadvantaged.

Labour’s populist pitch also masks several shortcomings. Miliband hasn’t addressed the necessity of deficit reduction with specific proposals. On key issues such as reforms in welfare,housing and education,Labour seems to have little to say. The Liberal Democrats are the wildcard. Somewhat to the dismay of its core supporters,the protest party of the left became a junior member of a Tory-led government. In marginal constituencies,the extent of the Lib Dem voter may yet turn out to be a decisive factor that affects the fortunes of the larger parties.

The Tories and Labour have laid out a competing blueprint for the state. The themes for the next general election campaign are beginning to take shape. At a time of economic difficulty,each party knows that the real challenge will lie in providing comfort to the electorate without shying from difficult decisions. In this exercise,the passionate outcry over the energy market is only a harbinger of the battles to come in the days ahead.

The writer is a London-based lawyer.

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