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21 April 2015

Has the UK election run out of energy?

Written by: Michael Zdanowski, Associate Director at Edelman

Energy, Government Affairs

“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” is the oft-cited quote attributed to Deng Xiaoping, commonly recognised as the leader of modern China’s transformation from agrarian state to economic superpower.

The phrase sprung to mind when reviewing the party election manifesto pledges on energy ahead of the UK’s upcoming general election. The policy pledges reflect the UK’s long-standing stance towards energy which is based on a mixed portfolio of energy sources for power generation.

While many other countries including EU neighbours France and Germany have prioritised one form of energy over another, the UK has pragmatically chosen a blend of coal and fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables to provide its energy.

The contours shaping the pre-election rhetoric in the UK do little to suggest a dramatic change of course. 

Fresh ideas

There are of course points of divergence in the pledges of the main parties. Some will point to Ed Miliband’s long-standing pledge to freeze energy bills until 2017 and reform the UK’s energy market as ground-breaking.

Labour’s promise, made last year, remains the main area of policy difference between the three main UK parties.

Less celebrated has been Labour’s manifesto commitment to establish an Energy Security Board (ESB), which will, “plan and deliver the energy mix we need, including renewables, nuclear, green gas, carbon capture and storage, and clean coal”.

The scope of the Board’s remit remains undefined but hints at a more interventionist approach to energy from Labour.

The Lib Dem manifesto contains no surprise energy policies. The most “green” and Europe-focused of the three main parties, the Lib Dems, interestingly accept nuclear as part of a low-carbon electricity supply mix. This had previously been a “red line” for the party’s grassroots.

The Conservatives meanwhile remain the main party most committed to natural gas fracking and to energy security.

The “safe-hands” approach of the Tory manifesto repeats a previous commitment to set up a sovereign wealth fund for the north of England to give back wealth created by shale gas to communities in which fracking takes place.

Spot the difference

Broadly though, the finer detail of the respective party manifestos reveals wafer-thin differences in many policy areas.

On the big issue of climate change, there was demonstrable alignment back in February when David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg issued a joint commitment to seek “a fair, strong legally binding global climate deal” and the “phasing out” of unabated coal for power generation.

The announcement garnered column headlines at the time but has contributed to taking the steam out of a deeper conversation about UK energy policy.

Just as the rapid arrival of spring has led to central heating being turned off all over the country, energy has seemingly slipped down the list of “hot topics” covered by the media in the run up to the election.

Unanswered questions

This is a shame. Energy security, the tumbling oil price, the spectre of climate change and domestic electricity provision, remain central challenges facing the UK.

The need for an honest and open dialogue on Britain’s future energy policy is undeniable. The party manifestos remain weak and woolly with regard to detailed energy policy.

Without deeper discussion and focus on energy, it is likely that the UK will continue to “hedge its bets” with regard to energy for decades to come. This results in incremental policy shift.

As the joint party statement on climate change suggests, the extraordinary times in which we live require root and branch leadership.

With a political system so delicately balanced – in part because of the rise of “outsider” parties like UKIP, the Greens and the SNP – Britain remains unlikely to make radical policy moves such as the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany or the prioritisation of renewables and energy efficiency measures like in many EU countries.

Post 7th May, energy will no doubt move up the political agenda regardless of the government’s composition. Why the UK puts energy on the back-burner as other policy areas heat up is a lost opportunity.

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