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Make heat and light a human right – Labour's radical plan ticks all the boxes

LABOUR’S plan to make access to heat and light human rights, kick the privateers out of electricity provision by nationalising the National Grid and transforming it into a new national energy agency ready to deliver on the party’s climate change targets is big and bold.

The contrast with the Conservatives is stark. As former Labour MP Alan Simpson writes in today’s paper, the party of government has made itself “almost irrelevant” on the biggest crisis facing humankind.

But the same is true of the so-called “centre” parties. The Lib Dems and the Back-to-Blair nostalgics of Change UK pay lip service to the climate change issue — but remain wedded to an economic system which is incapable of rising to the challenge. 

The national energy agency, linked with 14 regional energy agencies given statutory responsibility to decarbonise electricity and heat, ensure all households have access affordable energy, roll out electric vehicle charging infrastructure and reduce fuel poverty, is so powerful because it combines the battle against climate change with the fight for social justice.

This has not always been the case. Notoriously, Lib Dem policy director in the Nick Clegg era Polly Mackenzie boasted on Twitter last year that the party had been responsible for persuading David Cameron’s government to introduce a charge on plastic bags — “in an eve-of-conference trade, in return for tightening benefit sanctions.”

Similarly, the explosion of anger against grotesque inequality, worsening poverty and the marketisation of the French public sector by Emmanuel Macron’s government was ignited by what was ostensibly an environmental measure — a higher tax on diesel that was bound to hit the working poor.

Labour is making the case that cleaning up the world needn’t come at the expense of living standards but can be part of a strategy of national renewal that creates jobs, warms homes and saves lives.

National Energy Action notes that the winters of 2017-18 and 2018-19 each saw over 10,000 people die as a result of living in a cold home.

Fuel poverty is a crippling problem for millions. The organisation noted that “the number dying through cold each year is similar to the amount who die from prostate or breast cancer” and that a higher proportion of British people die from cold each winter than in any other European country except Ireland — a scandal when many European countries face far harsher winters.

But with 25 per cent of energy bills fattening the profits of the privatised energy companies we are not going to see serious action to bring bills down unless energy supply becomes a public service rather than a cash cow for speculators. 

Labour’s policy addresses the concerns of young people whose wave of protests and school strikes over politicians’ indifference to climate change has rocked this country and many others.

It addresses the concerns of old people who are the most likely to perish through an inability to afford a properly heated home in winter.

It’s exactly the kind of system-changing issue that ought to focus minds on how we change our country for the benefit of the immense majority rather than allow issues like Brexit to divide our movement.

That is not to say that Labour can “park” the Brexit issue — rather, its approach needs to reflect the need to address to social and ecological crises we face. If the rules of our world need to be rewritten to allow sustainable, planned development, the corporate treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon that enshrine market supremacy as the guiding economic principle across most of Europe need to be torn down.

If Labour made the case that reshaping society involves a radical rupture with institutions designed to enforce the Thatcherite status quo, it could bring working-class people together behind its transformative vision.

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