Labour’s energy price freeze folly

Our politics has been taken hostage, with the media having succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. Over the past five weeks, Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy prices, were he elected in 2015, has emerged as the dominant single discourse in the Westminster political village. Nothing else would seem to matter to our dear leaders; whilst I’m told it’s all the rage with the chattering classes.

But if I hear another media hack proclaim that Miliband has ‘set the political agenda,’ I may be forced to gnaw my own hands down to bloody stumps. Labour has not set the political agenda, far from it. They have instead set the media’s agenda, mainly because they love a catchy but utterly meaningless sound bite even more than politicians do.

Perhaps four weeks ago, when Ed Miliband first began his ‘cost of living’ assault, based around energy prices, at Prime Minister’s Questions, his attacks were effective. But, one month and four PMQs later dominated by the same subject, it is becoming meaningless. Labour’s strategic mistake is becoming more obvious.

Miliband is pushing Cameron too hard. You don’t want to force your opponent into action, diluting the appeal of your policy, but rather paralyse them; Cameron was a rabbit caught in the headlights on week one. Now he is fighting back. As a result, the effects of his price freeze policy, the way in which it electrified British politics and mesmerised the media, are beginning to wear off.

It is a vacuous policy, and that is part of the mistake. It fails to tackle the real reasons why energy prices are rising, instead offering a short term, cynical, sticking plaster solution that anyone with two iotas of intelligence knows is impractical. Therefore, it would be only prudent not to give your opponents the time, or the motive, to examine, deconstruct and prepare an effective critique.

Cameron faired significantly better at the latest session of PMQs. The government, the ones who can actually act rather than simply make promises, is beginning to realise that they hold the ability to not simply freeze bills, but rather to cut them, and to help prevent their rising in the future.

Cutting ‘green’ taxes and levies has emerged as the ideological and practical weapon to blunt Miliband’s message. Dear Ed has shown his hand too soon; the electorate will soon have fully registered this policy and be back demanding more.

That is the bigger problem at play here, to which the Labour party appears to have given very little thought. By sticking to this one particular issue and one particular policy, albeit popular, they are increasingly demonstrating that they actually have very few policies overall. Perhaps this is why they have been so keen, unwisely in my opinion, to shout their one semi-coherent position in the face of anyone who’ll listen.

Leaving the centre ground is never a good idea; but even worse than that, especially for an opposition, is to become a ‘one trick pony’ as the Prime Minister so eloquently put it. After all, he knows the dangers. Does anyone remember the overriding success of William Hague’s 2001 ‘save the pound’ campaign? No? Thought not. You’re not the only one. It may have been an issue very close to the electorate’s heart, to which opinion polls reacted favourably, but elections are not won on single issues. They never have and they never will be.

As the economy improves, unable to shield themselves behind their welfare, immigration, education or NHS policies, the Labour party has decided to retreat to their cost of living bunker.

In opposition, the only thing worse than leaving the centre ground is attempting to use an impractical and cynical policy as a fig leaf whilst giving your enemies months to take aim. In the white heat of an election campaign, a populist stunt such as this could have swung it for Labour. Maybe. But this policy is too soon and too repetitive. With two years to go until the election, it simply reeks of desperation.

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