Matthew Lockwood, IGov Team, 12 September 2014
As John Harris argues in today’s Guardian, there are deep shifts going on in the nature of democracy across the UK (and actually the rest of Europe too). The predominant mood is one of rejection of political elites and conventional party politics by an electorate who have experienced a decade of declining living standards and increased economic uncertainty. Much of the rise of the ‘Yes’ vote for Scottish independence reflects this mood, but so does the emergence of UKIP in places like Clacton, which as Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have shown convincingly, is more about those ‘left behind’ by globalisation and technological change than it is about Europe per se. A revolt is stirring against the ‘post-democracy’ political times we live in.
What has this to do with energy policy? The answer is both threat and opportunity. The threat is to climate policy. Climate change, a global, invisible long-term problem, is the ultimate cosmopolitan agenda championed by the institutions that populists hate, including the EU and the UN. Climate policy isn’t the main aim of UKIP’s ire, but it is collateral damage, tarred by association. Moreover, as policy is currently designed, the costs of decarbonising energy are disproportionately high for low income households who are least likely to benefit. The ‘left behind’ are helping to pay for the solar PV panels on the roofs of mansions in Richmond and the Cotswolds.
But these same solar panels also represent an opportunity. For just as the political model is broken, so too are the institutions of the corporate energy model. One of the few groups even more unpopular than politicians in today’s Britain are the large energy companies. The idea of do-it-yourself energy production by households and local communities should resonate strongly with the localist libertarian ideology of rebel politicians like Douglas Carswell, recently defected from the Conservatives to UKIP.
There will always be a sizeable group for whom concerns about climate change are salient enough to underpin their support for conventional climate policy and energy decarbonisation. But in my view, the key to avoiding the threats and grasping the opportunities as Britain’s politics changes over the next few years will be to make a different offer to those from whom that is not true. For those who hate energy companies even more than EU bureaucrats, reframe the issue as power to the people (literally). Second, make the financing of low-carbon local energy production demonstrably fairer than it is now. There are many options for doing this, including paying for feed-in tariffs from tax rather than on-bills, recycling ETS revenues into micro-renewables, or best of all, in my view, using long-term public debt.
As Bob Dylan put it 50 years ago: As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’.