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Editorial: Ending the energy firms’ stranglehold would be a vote-winner for Labour

INFLATION is up to above 5 per cent and the latest prediction is that — after housing costs have been met — runaway energy bills will consume more than half the remaining income of the poorest people in Britain.

These gas and electricity price hikes threaten to plunge two million more households into deeper fuel poverty, bringing the total up to six million across Britain by the time warmer weather begins to ease the burden.

While millions of people are forced to live with the choice of adequate warmth and light or an adequate diet, the big five energy monopolies are raking in even bigger profits from their dominant position in the energy supply and production markets.

If energy prices are a domestic crisis for millions and an even an unwelcome burden for millions more in less straitened circumstances, for the giant gas firms they have proved a bonanza.

Centrica-British Gas almost doubled its profits in the first half of 2021. And where the myriad of dodgy firms that intervened in this liberalised market collapsed — as a result of the spike in global energy catching them out — the case for a rationalisation that can only come about through public ownership has become utterly convincing.

Convincing that is to everyone except those blinded by profit.

In 1949 — with the earlier rationalisation of Britain’s public services and essential industries — the main predecessor of British Gas was taken into public ownership and, along with other publicly owned gas corporations, was merged into the nationwide British Gas Corporation.

Much industrial and domestic gas was produced from nationalised coal in the now-vanished gas works which were to be found in every town and city. North Sea gas added a new energy source to the mix and one which offered enormous profits.

The electricity supply and gas energy industries are locked in the warm embrace of the big banks, compel the obedience of all governments and the political class, and behind their benign PR image are voracious predators like few others.

It was the the Tory government which, in 1984, sold off these assets to private investors. Since then the familiar process of creeping capitalist consolidation into massive monopoly ownership has made energy supply and production a golden train of profits for the people who now own what was once our collective property.

In the last Labour leadership election Sir Keir Starmer’s fifth policy pledge — that public services should be in public hands and not making profits for shareholders — was coupled with support for common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water and an end to outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice systems.

That is why he won, a safe and steady pair of hands to guide through Labour’s radical and vote-winning programme.

Now he has ruled out public ownership of the energy industry we are left with no serious challenge in Parliament to the energy rip-off.

But the need is clear. We need strict price controls and the abolition of VAT on household energy bills. Starmer is in pole position to remind Johnson that this is now possible precisely because Brexit has freed us from the constraints of the EU’s neoliberal economic regime. 

Starmer says he wants to make Brexit work. Here is a golden opportunity.

The energy monopolies would find it hard to justify resisting a windfall tax on their profits and it is immensely popular with voters of all political opinions.

Without the democratic control of energy that public ownership confers, all consumers — working people, public services and industry — are in hock to profiteering and at the mercy of the big energy monopolies.

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