Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tell Sid to go to hell

Nearly three quarters of respondents to a ComRes poll commissioned by the BBC thought that energy bills in the UK were 'unreasonably high' and a third were worried about how they'd pay their heating bills this coming winter.

That's not at all surprising - at the best of time, most people think they should be paying less for the stuff they buy and with underemployment, stagnating wages, soaring levels of private debt and surging energy prices, this ain't the best of times.

The bit that did surprise and interest me was the 69% of respondents who said that energy firms should be nationalised.

It's purely academic, in the sense that I can't imagine any plausible near future government being open to the idea of nationalisation, even if more polls confirmed that the majority of people wanted it. Whatever the functional merits, or otherwise, of outsourcing stuff to the private sector, the political benefits of outsourcing the blame when things go wrong are massive. When G4S screwed up at Olympics, ministers could sound tough and get outraged on our behalf, rather than having to look sheepish and take the blame, or bluster that it really wasn't their fault, as they would if that gig been organised in house. Would any government rather see people getting angry with the power companies or with the government? That is, I think, a rhetorical question.

It's slightly interesting as a thought experiment, brainstorming nationalisation as a possible fix for our dysfunctional energy sector. It might reduce profiteers' opportunities to swindle consumers and extract inflated profits via the current oligopoly/confusopoly model. But there are clearly a lot of other factors unrelated to ownership affecting fuel prices.* Like bringing back British Rail, energy nationalisation might help, but it would be hard and it would leave a lot of other problems to be fixed.

It's more interesting to find out that the national ownership of utilities is apparently still thinkable to many people, despite the idea having being declared ideologically unthinkable by a generation of mainstream political apparatchiks.

More than a quarter of a century after people were being urged to "tell Sid" to fill his boots with British Gas shares, it looks as if Thatcher's children just want the system to work better, whoever runs it, and Sid can go to hell. Renationalisation may not be possible, or even the best fix for the problem, but it's encouraging to find that ordinary people seem more open to alternatives and less slavishly attached to the fashionable political orthodoxy than those terribly important people in the Westminster/press/PR bubble.

*For example investment in energy infrastructure, choices about the type of generation needed, how developing technologies affect the viability of the different types of generation, which countries have all the oil, gas, coal or other energy resources we need to buy, commodity prices, the effect of commodity speculation on the market, energy saving measures, balancing the need for energy to be cheap with the need for it to be clean, for starters.