The politics of complete confusion
As the Tory leadership race tediously draws to a close, even Conservative Party members are hoping that any knock on the door comes from Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than Truss or Sunak. At least God’s canvassers admit to having no political connection to the temporal crises we are locked into.
The national press has also tired of the political trivia and are struggling to give much weight to exchanges of emptiness between the candidates. Regardless, Truss and Sunak steadily morph into the ‘Little Britain’ of contemporary politics.
With a straight face, Truss launched her ‘green vision’ proposals with commitments to suspend ‘green levies’ and revoke EU regulations that ‘constrain’ British farmers. Sunak is no better, promising to ‘protect farming from solar farms’ when he has neither a plan for sustainable agriculture nor for the mass roll out of community solar.
‘Forward to the Past!’ they both proclaim.
Truss’ launch oﬀered not even a glimmer of recognition that, by ditching EU water standards that made 95% of Britain’s beaches safe to swim on, Tory deregulation has allowed water companies to ‘gift’ themselves uninterrupted dividends, whilst bestowing a necklace of sewage infested coastlines upon the country.
Is this what ‘setting our own standards’ was all about?
The BBC’s Rev. Richard Coles was moved to oﬀer a public parody of John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’, suggesting it should now read –
I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky,
And sniﬀ the breeze and try to dodge
The jobbies bobbing by.
Parody may be as close as we get to sanity these days.
Robbed of Boris’s bluster, the catastrophe of a decade of deregulation and liberalisation stares Britain in the face.
The NHS remains massively understaﬀed and underfunded. The water industry is allowed to get away with dismal annual reductions in leakage rates on top of its sewage discharges.
Instead of lowering the cost of public transport, the government demands lower safety standards, reduced staﬃng and below-inflation pay rises. No mention anywhere of dividends and bonuses siphoned oﬀ at the top.
Energy policies are no better. Look at the make up of the ‘Energy Round Table’ Boris Johnson finally convened. Sclerosis was locked into the list of corporate attendees. Fatuously, it stressed
“the importance of investing in North Sea oil and gas, renewables, biomass and nuclear to strengthen our domestic energy security”.
But in reality, only Octopus Energy actively oﬀers ‘renewables’ packages of household solar, battery storage and EV charging. The rest simply want to prop up their corporate dominiums. Other countries may be racing down a path of democratisation and decentralisation but this isn’t even on the UK agenda.
Instead, Britain’s government throws money at exorbitant nuclear – for electricity more likely to be delivered in the afterlife – and at fossil fuels that will accelerate our journey into it.
In truth, all privatisations have been a disaster. Profiteering has been allowed to masquerade as productivity. And in the inevitable crises that followed, Conservative Ministers have thrown their hands up in mock surprise … then quickly blamed the workers.
Britain is not locked into a wage-price inflationary spiral. Real wages are plummeting … except for the rich. In the current Tory Leadership race, neither candidate has seen fit to mention that the wealth of the richest 1% in Britain grew by £200bn during the pandemic.
Neither Truss nor Sunak accepts that tax increases on the richest are needed for any shift towards a more sustainable future. Neither advocate the more democratic, accountable and inclusive politics that will become critical to crisis resolution. And neither oﬀer systemic structural change.
And the alternatives are?
But if the Tory Leadership race is a political vacuum, the Opposition isn’t filling it. Labour oﬀers a 6 month sticking plaster, with no idea of what follows.
Independent commentators scream at politicians to recognise that 60-80% of households could be thrown into fuel poverty if the planned price-cap increases go through. Labour’s plan to freeze the cap, at current rates, would get a lot of people through the winter but, at £29bn, it is a big slice of cash for something that (structurally) changes nothing.
Caroline Lucas MP at least picked up the gauntlet arguing for re-nationalisation of the Big 5 energy companies. This is more interventionist (and cheaper) than Labour’s oﬀer and draws heavily on the TUC calculation that it would currently cost only £2.8bn to buy all their shares. Such a move would kick the obsession with shareholder dividends firmly out of the game. The trouble is that it would saddle the public sector with all the decommissioning liabilities for a system that has its roots in the past, not the future.
A more radical proposal came from the more market orientated, Michael Liebreich. His plan is to transfer energy levies from renewables to non-renewables, prioritise energy saving and split the electricity market into a Clean Power Market (CPM) and a Fossil Power Market (FPM).
The rationale is simple. Solar and wind are already the cheapest electricity sources around. If Britain prioritised self-supply/local supply this could radically cut electricity costs. But market prices are set by the most expensive supplier; gas. Splitting the market between a price-capped CPM and an uncapped fossil fuel sector would incentivise the race into renewables.
The current UK energy market even makes a mockery of renewables. The big owners of wind turbines all had to submit price bids to win CfD generation contracts. Prices tumbled … in theory. But once the gas crisis began to drive electricity prices upwards, wind generators chose to sell at speculative rates rather than through the CfD mechanism. Good news for them, crap news for bill payers.
Someone has to step back for a more radical rethink. South Africa’s approach to water pricing may be a start. They have a ‘citizens right’ to the first quantity of water consumed. This comes at a really low price. Then, the more you consume the higher the tariﬀs become. You can do the same for energy.
The State will need a diﬀerent framework for ‘essential’ energy intensive industries, but even this must come with its own carbon-reducing conditions. Replacing concrete with hempcrete, using electric arc
furnaces for all steel production and setting obligations requiring the socialised use of waste heat, are all examples of a diﬀerent economics that must put back more than it takes out.
There is no magic wand to make this happen overnight. The government has to intervene on a massive scale, in the way it did over Covid, just to keep businesses and households alive over the coming year. But you can’t live a life stuck in a safety net. Bigger structural upheavals are needed.
The consumption of less
There is at least a logic to the Liebreich proposals. But his vision involves convoluted economics and still ends up treating energy as a speculative commodity. Far better to follow Denmark; redefining energy as a not-for-profit ‘service’ not a speculative market. Then we need new rules that incentivise the consumption of ‘less’ rather than more.
Liebreich rightly flags up the wasteful scams involved in the installation of condensing boilers. But, again, a more eﬀective lever for rapid adaptive change would be a legal duty, on all energy suppliers, to deliver 10% annual reductions in carbon consumption. The eﬀect would be instantaneous; a renewed race into renewables, a premium on carbon eﬃcient appliances and new ‘energy saving’ partnerships between energy companies and households/businesses across the land.
Another world is still possible
The value of any crisis rests only in the invitation to think diﬀerently. Truss and Sunak certainly can’t. The jury is still out on whether Labour can. But others are already doing so, even if it is in fragments.
India is installing solar canopies over its canals. Norway draws heat from its fjords. The Netherlands taps into the everlasting hot water found in disused mineshafts. And 60 major cities across the globe – including Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney and London – have signed up to a new Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty, aiming to deliver a just transition away from coal oil and gas.
Somewhere beyond climate denial and short-termism, another world is still possible. But there’s an urgency to creating it.