29 Nov 2013

Is David Cameron hijacking Ed Miliband’s ideas?

First a cap on payday loans, then a move to plain-paper cigarette packaging and now a cut in energy bills. Are the Conservatives seizing on Labour’s ideas?

When it was first announced in September it was ridiculed as “unworkable” and “cynical”. Energy companies erupted. The Daily Mail branded it a return of Seventies socialism.

But Ed Miliband’s pledge to reform the energy market starting with a 20-month price freeze from June 2015 appears to have struck a nerve inside government.

Energy prices have rarely been out of the headlines since, helped by a series of price hikes and one of the coldest winters in recent years. Former Prime Minister John Major has even waded in calling for firms to face a windfall tax on profits.

Now, David Cameron’s move to rein back several green energy initiatives in a move likely to set him against Liberal Democrats, is the final acknowledgement that the issue of energy bills is at the centre of a crucial political battle.

It is also the clearest indication yet that the Tories are increasingly being forced to fight on Labour’s terms. It was George Osborne, after all, who said: “I do not feel under pressure to match gimmick for gimmick. If anything, we are winning this argument with the British public precisely because we have been consistent, we have continued to put a grown-up argument to a grown-up country.”

Rather than the supposed price freeze, Mr Osborne is reviewing measures that could reduce bills by around £50 by relaxing environmental commitments and moving the costs of green schemes from energy bills. We will find out the precise details in next week’s autumn statement.

Politics of intervention

Meanwhile renewed interest in energy prices comes days after the government agreed to a cap on payday loans, one of Labour’s key areas, with Miliband vowing to clamp down on Britain’s ‘Wonga economy’.

The renewal of plans for non-branded cigarette packaging, a measure widely championed by Labour and the Lib Dems, could also be seen as the government playing to Labour’s tune, though the government says it was in a process of review.

Nonetheless, all of this plays particularly well for Mr Miliband, who has accused Mr Cameron of being a “weak and flailing Prime Minister”. But are the Tories guilty of hijacking Labour’s ideas?

That is perhaps to give Labour too much credence. Pollsters say the Tories are covering themselves against the charge of being seen as a party whose natural interests lie with the rich. To win in 2015, the Tories need to increase its share of the vote second time around – something that even Thatcher and Blair were unable to do. Public support from as far and wide as possible is crucial.

The wider problem: ‘we can do that’

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University told Channel 4 News: “Rather than the Conservatives hijacking Labour’s ideas, it is Ed Miliband that has hijacked the political agenda. There is no doubt since September the government has been on the defensive. But the move is less about counteracting Labour and more about responding to public and political pressure.”

While economic fortunes nationally may be improving, Mr Curtice says that, as long as real wages seem to stay stagnant or fall, the Tories simply cannot afford not to address cost of living. With Labour making that the heart of their campaign strategy, there are natural areas of overlap and battles will be hard fought in certain areas, not least energy bills.

But it comes with warning. Mr Curtis adds: “For all of Miliband’s rave reviews, Labour’s polling position continues to be weak and both the government and its opposition have serious reasons to worry about how they are going to make significant gains from where they are currently.”

And that is at the heart of this. Miliband’s three big calls – payday loans, plain cigarette packaging and energy bills – may have left the government open to criticism.

But Labour’s problem is that by adopting their policy or tailoring their own alternative, the Conservatives are effectively sharpening their own ideas while blunting the appeal of their opponent’s pledge come the election. There is, after all, still 18 months to go.