Labour leadership contest and energy policy: Jeremy’s road to nowhere?

The left-wing contender proposes nationalising the sector

In the Labour leadership contest, announcements on energy policy are like buses: you wait ages for one to arrive, and then three come along at once. Days after Yvette Cooper unveiled a list of priorities for tackling climate change, Andy Burnham reiterated his promise of a moratorium on fracking. And this morning Jeremy Corbyn got in on the act with pledges on a host of energy issues.

Why now? Unfortunately for this blogger’s ego, it probably wasn’t that piece he wrote last week lamenting the lack of focus on energy. The more likely reason is that Corbyn’s rivals looked to neutralise his popularity among left-leaning Labour members and happened upon the policy area as one of a series of issues they could challenge him on.

Unfortunately for them, the Islington North MP’s positions are so absolute that he can easily outbid them in the socialist stakes. Today Corbyn gave an interview to the Greenpeace-linked Energy Desk website in which he proposed bringing the large energy firms “under public ownership, or public control in some form”. Such a policy would be delivered by majority shareholding – increasing share sales which would then be bought by the government in order to give controlling interest.

In making this intervention, Corbyn has shown himself to be no political simpleton. Having teased his interest in nationalisation of various utilities last month, the veteran backbencher pulled his rivals a bit further left and then trumped them at a time of his choosing. Any left-leaning activist temporarily mollified by the goodies dangled in Andy Burnham’s manifesto may now run straight back into Corbyn’s arms.

Yet Corbyn now has one small problem: he might win the leadership contest. If that happens, he will have to justify this policy to a public that, if an independent Labour inquiry into its election defeat is right, may not be entirely ready to trust the party with spending the billions required to bring a large energy firm into public hands. Corbyn himself all but conceded this would be an obstacle in his Greenpeace interview, saying the cost would be justified by profits that would end up with the public rather than shareholders.

And it’s not just the public who might raise a sceptical eye if Corbyn tried to sell this to a wider audience. With only a tiny base of supporters within the Parliamentary Labour Party, the newly-anointed leader would have to get this proposal past a large number of MPs who were doubtful about even some of Ed Miliband’s more left-wing pronouncements. His challenge would be made harder if someone like Chuka Umunna was to lead a mutiny against it from the backbenches.

But let’s say Corbyn does not win on 12th September, and that both this policy and his candidacy merely do what they said on the tin – they ‘broaden the debate’. That has to be good for Labour, right? It may seem that way now in the thrill of a leadership contest, but the political discussion on energy issues has not halted while Labour addresses its internal problems.

Already since the election the Government has set up arguments about the cost of renewables and the need for shale, while debate on the energy market has shifted away from the actions of the large energy companies onto consumer disengagement with the publication of the CMA’s provisional findings.

If Labour does not come up with clear lines on these issues, it risks others with very different agendas – a buoyant group of nationalists and a former governing party desperate to redefine itself – cutting through to the public on energy. And if that happens, Labour may be waiting an awful long time for a lift back to political relevance.  

Photograph: Garry Knight

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