Since the 1980s, a cartel of private companies has cemented a stranglehold over Britain’s energy sector. The promise was “competition”, lower bills and better services. The reality is spiralling prices and an industry mistrusted even more than the banks. Out of control bills leave millions choosing between heating and eating in winter. And the urgently required investment in clean energy technology in the face of climate change is nowhere to be seen. Our grid is old and creaking, a dangerous monument to the past.
It has been heartening to see Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership breathing some life into a tired energy debate. “Energy democracy” was the bold vision emanating from Lisa Nandy’s speech to Conference in September, with a promise of “a clean energy boom in our great cities.” This is no new idea. It was Britain’s cities that delivered widespread electricity access in the early 20th century. Now, across Europe, cities are leading the transition to low-carbon energy. In the UK, Nottingham and Bristol councils are creating their own non-profit energy utilities.
If done well, municipal energy can see Britain’s cities tackling fuel poverty and climate change together, generating new sources of public revenue and shifting power from business elites to ordinary people. Yet this is not guaranteed. Boris Johnson’s ‘Licence Lite’ municipal energy scheme for London was recently exposed as a closet public-private partnership with German utility giant RWE nPower.
Labour’s move towards municipal energy is very welcome but needs to be clear on the principles underpinning it. The London mayoral election will be a crucial battle. With the Greens stronger than in previous years and Zac Goldsmith billing himself as a blue-green candidate, Sadiq Khan needs a distinctive and popular green vision of his own. Switched On London is a new campaign bringing together unions like UNISON and PCS with think-tanks, community energy and grassroots groups – from the New Economics Foundation to Hackney Energy and Fuel Poverty Action. We have a bold but achievable vision of municipal energy for the capital that we are calling on Sadiq to adopt – a vision underpinned by core Labour values of social justice and democratic control.
We’re calling for a new fully public company, offering affordable tariffs that undercut the Big Six and pledging fair pay and conditions to its workers. We want a company that offers ambitious investment in new renewable energy infrastructure – financed by fossil fuel divestment – and that commits to selling 100% clean energy. And we have a series of innovative democratic proposals – based on best-practice across Europe – for how this new company should be governed, including elected board members, total transparency and accountability to annual assemblies in every borough.
With another round of devastating floods keeping the realities of climate change fresh in voters’ minds, Labour needs to prove that its welcome fresh thinking on energy is more than hot air. The London mayoral elections is a chance to establish Labour’s energy democracy agenda as something with real popular appeal.