Whatever your views on Ed Miliband’s chances in 2015, there can be no denying that his headline-grabbing 2013 conference speech was remarkable. Remarkable not just for the big policy announcements, or the personable delivery, but also for the ire it’s received from large parts of the press – reading the papers, some (if not most) spoke of ‘blackouts’, ‘landgrabs’ and ‘Red Ed’ returning us to socialism and the 1970s. Remarkable also for how criticism has come in from major business organisations, and for how energy companies like Centrica have warned that they might have to leave the UK if the Labour leader’s price freeze came into effect.
But most remarkable is that Ed Miliband will not only have expected all of this, but been hoping for it too.
Indeed, senior figures promoting his energy policy – like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper – have had ample opportunity in the media to really stress the temporary nature of this price freeze. To argue that it’s about reforming the energy market (key word) not abolishing it, so it works better for consumers. But they haven’t. Instead they’ve repeatedly and relentlessly gone after energy companies, deliberately picking a fight with the ‘Big 6’ and tying a message about high energy prices back into their narrative on falling living standards.
The reason is that, as publicly available polling and Labour’s own extensive focus group research shows, the public are hugely dissatisfied with energy companies and the bills they receive. Indeed, one poll for the BBC found that 69% of people believe that the government should nationalise the sector to ease the pressure on consumers – a much bigger step than temporary price controls. Similarly, the public have major concerns over the cost and availability of housing – and little sympathy for developers – and would much rather see tax cuts for small businesses than for large ones.
Seen through this lens, Miliband’s policies are not ideologically driven by a newspaper caricature of left-wing ideology, but populist policies that focus on big issues affecting people’s lives. They’re also designed to put David Cameron on the wrong side of the debate, defending an unpopular energy market rather than the consumer.
There remain obvious concerns over what the freeze might do to prices and investment in the meantime and how the policy will fit with Labour’s pledge to decarbonise by 2030, as well as questions over if Miliband is yet truly perceived as a leader by the public. But this speech has put him on the front foot, provided big policies, and, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted, has given his ambition to be PM “a helpful push – and proved he is still in the game”.