Saturday, October 01, 2011

Open letter to Ed Miliband: Don't be shy. You can do it!

Ed Miliband at the Labour Party Conference 2011
Dear Mr. Miliband

In the small amount of your speech to the Labour Party Conference that you devoted to energy, you observed that "we need investment" - with which no one would argue – and added that Labour would "build our economy not on low wages and high finance, but low carbon and high tech".

And in the following Q&A session, you said you "want my children to remember me above all for tackling climate change".

Fine words. But what exactly are the policies that might achieve this for Labour? You did not say.

Nor was there any hint from your Shadow Energy Secretary Meg Hillier in her speech, although she made a good job of lambasting the Government's record.

She reminded a fringe meeting that DECC is lampooned at Westminster for being the Treasury's poodle and listed the broken promises of the "greenest government ever":
  • "The Green Investment Bank - promised in Labour's manifesto, but hobbled under the Coalition. Delayed, and unable to borrow capital.

  • Research into bio-fuels - scrapped.

  • Zero Carbon homes - scrapped.

  • Charging points for electric cars - scrapped.

  • Low carbon businesses watching their orders disappear abroad.

  • A 'green deal' for home insulation which promises the earth, but few have even heard of."

My abiding memory of you, Miliband Junior, is from when you were Labour's Energy and Climate Change Secretary, at the COP15 Copenhagen climate summit, being interviewed by the disarming The Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong - while standing on her head.

You were very relaxed and spoke with conviction about having ambitious goals for the climate change talks.

Around that time, you called upon anyone who cared about climate change to put pressure on the Government, because it was only when doing so that it felt it had a mandate to push for demanding more at top level negotiations such as Copenhagen.

It was a surreal moment. It was if the world – rather than Ms. Armstrong herself – had been turned upside down.

One felt that when politicians ask the people to protest - and even join them on a demonstration - it is an admission of how little power they honestly feel that they have.

It made you seem human, and indeed you were an approachable and enthusiastic Energy Secretary.

But is this what we want from prime ministers? Don't we want them actually to be superhuman - strong leaders who intuitively know what is the right thing to do, get on with it, and show us the way?

Instead, as you know, we live in an age of focus-group politics that gives the illusion of democracy but is still dominated by vested business interests.

So perhaps this is why you chose to attack "the dominance of the big energy companies" in your keynote speech.

Yet what, people listening asked themselves, would you do in government that is different either from what the Coalition is doing now or what you yourself did when in power?

Did you do anything to challenge what you called the Big Six "rigged market" then?

Actually, you did.

Remember 2009's Climate Camp at Kingsnorth power station, which campaigned against the threat of a new coal-burning plant which E.ON, one of the Big Six, wanted to build?

Just prior to this, you attended The Age of Stupid film premiere where actor Pete Postlethwaite ambushed you and threatened to return his OBE unless you refused permission for this plant.

One month later you announced that no new coal-fired power station would get government consent unless it can capture and bury 25% of the emissions it produces immediately – and 100% of emissions by 2025.

This, a DECC source told the Guardian, represented “a complete rewrite of UK energy policy” - one which has continued to this day, surviving a change of government.

That's an impressive achievement, because it was the right thing to do.

Why didn't you remind the conference of this in your speech. You might have said, "I've taken on an energy giant before, I can do it again".

The source of energy policies

Admittedly, your party is three years from a general election, and it doesn't need to have specific policies yet.

But if Labour wants to really break from the past, as well as break the dominance of the energy companies, you could do far worse than to get down to basics, throw away the rulebook, and take a long, hard, and fresh look at the evidence base upon which governments have built their energy and environment policies for the last ten years.

Only then will you be able to reconstruct a legitimate yet radical new policy that has credible foundations.

This evidence base, as it is now, rests to far too great an extent on the commissioned research of external consultants.

These well-paid and influential firms toil in the relative shadows of government and produce reports full of cost-estimates and scenarios that 'prove' the relative worth of different policy choices - for example alternative energy mixes - which subtly nudge officials and ministers into weighing down on one policy side rather than another.

I'm talking about firms like Redpoint and Trilemma, who have produced and are continuing to produce reports for DECC on topics like the reform of the Renewables Obligation and other renewables and nuclear power support schemes.

The actual bases for their figures are often shrouded in mystery, and quite possibly pulled out of thin air, as they try to guess what energy prices will be in five, ten, fifteen years time. Who really knows?

Yet the reports which are based on them are given the aura of great authority by subsequently becoming embedded in the superstructure of the Government's energy policy.

But who are these firms? They consist of a few self-selected individuals who have set themselves up as 'experts'.

If you look at the credentials and CVs of the firms' directors, you will see that their backgrounds are almost exclusively in either the fossil fuel industries or asset management or both.

And, for example, Redpoint's other clients include EDF Energy, Centrica, ESB, GE, Statoil, Vattenfall, and Shell. Are these names familiar? Remember the "rigged market"?

What a different set of energy policies do you think Labour might generate if it asked for figures and evidence from other types of experts? From independent academics, for example, from scientists or from 'the wisdom of crowds'?

Since, Mr. Miliband, you like campaigners, you might choose to study the research of NGOs such as WWF, Greenpeace, Forum for the Future and the Centre for Alternative Technology, who have all developed detailed scenarios for moving towards a zero carbon sustainable future, have no vested business interests, but instead memberships of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.

The people who might vote for you.

Failing that, you might want to listen to the voice of Parliament's own Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, which has taken evidence from hundreds of expert witnesses over the years.

In my opinion, this cross-party group has consistently come out with the sanest of policy advice, only to have it largely and politely ignored by the Lower House.

So, which 'expert evidence', Mr. Miliband, will form the basis for your policies? You pay your money, you take your choice.

By the way, Ed, you said in your speech that energy prices always seem to go up, not down.

In fact this isn't true.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change records average energy bills, and although these have risen in real terms over recent years, there was actually a fall between 2009 and 2010.

And who was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change then?

Step forward, Ed Miliband. Don't be shy.

Either you have a short memory, or you are far too modest ever to stand a chance of being Prime Minister.

You need to do more to remind people of your successes, and have the courage of your convictions.

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