Thursday's news was dominated by the revelation that British Gas have raised their combined prices by a staggering 9.2% next year, despite pressure from many within the UK for a price freeze or cut. This confirms two things to me. Firstly, and perhaps obviously, British Gas are in it for their shareholders, and they really couldn’t care less how much the plebs pay for their electricity bills as long as they can keep paying £5 million salaries to their top execs. And secondly, that the Tory party are so hopelessly in cahoots with large power corporations that their best response for the past 3 years has been to tell punters to ‘find a better deal’. Well clearly we can’t find a better deal “Dave”, but I guess you won’t know any of the vulnerable, impoverished pensioners that will die, so it’s not your problem.
Amongst all the options discussed on the BBC tonight though, we got the impression, as was given when the banks went bust, that this is just another unsolvable burden for taxpayers to carry. But is it? There was one solution that didn’t get a mention even from the supposedly ‘socialist’ Labour party: Nationalisation.
And why not? Power companies will say they provide a public service, but the fact is they don’t. They make billions every year out of ordinary people, supplying something that everyone needs. Whatever the companies themselves might tell you, a lot of this profit doesn’t get reinvested into green energy or stopping blackouts, it lines some exceptionally wealthy people’s pockets. Now, what would be so bad about having that money in the public coffers, or (god forbid) taken off of people’s energy bills?
For starters, the whole idea of an energy ‘market’ is about as ridiculous as a market for breathable oxygen. We all need power, and we all need it in the same form, from the same sorts of sources. Where’s the necessity for competition? What value is there in innovating (apart from in rare cases when it provides short term gain) in a captive market? Put bluntly, the energy companies aren’t going to bother to compete to lower prices, because why should they? They can make money just by treading water, and they certainly don’t care about you. As is the case with the NHS then, public ownership of utilities wouldn’t be about promoting a socialist ideology, but about preventing naked exploitation from the worst kind of capitalists.
Another advantage to having nationalised power is about transparency. Indeed one of the problems with accusing the energy companies of ripping off consumers is the impossibility of knowing whether they’re actually telling the truth about their costs. This is because, like all private companies, they have the right to keep their financial figures to themselves. Contrast that with a nationalised power network, where we would not only be able to see, but also have control over things like staff salaries, and how much to spend on things like green energy. At the moment, we’re chasing shadows and our politicians are just as clueless about the situation within the companies as we are.
One more thing I think we’d gain from a renationalisation is extra protection for those who need power the most. I say this because there has rightly been plenty of quite genuine concerns that the price rises announced by British Gas and others today will kill people. The cost of living has risen again, wages have stayed low, and many, particularly the old, the sick and the poor, could be in trouble this winter. Cheaper, fairer power could prevent these deaths, and countless more in the future.
There’s also another facet to this point, which is a more general admission about the state of power in the modern world. We live in an international power market with rising demand and dropping supply, and whatever we do, we are going to feel the squeeze in terms of energy prices over the next few years. This much is out of our hands. But just as we needed rationing during the second world war simply to ensure that everybody ate, we may also need to ration our power in a way that keeps everyone warm and everyone enjoying the massive benefit electricity gives us in our day to day lives.
This simply can’t be done without gas and electricity that is owned by us, and by extension, works for everyone’s benefit. Sadly no mainstream political party will dare stand for election under a policy like this, so we still have quite a long way to go. Electing Ed Miliband, who for all his flaws at least seems to realise there is a problem, would be a start, but we need more than this. In short, if you’re reading this and agree with me, do something. Write to your MP, start a petition. Let’s take back our power.