How will the Government’s proposed new legislation on energy price capping do with ordinary voters? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer isn’t clear. Polling and other markers of public opinion give conflicting guidance on whether or not people really care about the issue and whether they’d ultimately vote on it.
Recent political interest in the energy market was sparked by Ed Miliband in the long run-up to the 2015 election. He secured positive traction in the media with a promise to cap bills – and probably a brief corresponding lift in the polls (it’s hard to isolate the exact impact of the policy, given it came out as part of a wider set of announcements). And anecdotally, energy prices seem to be a point of concern and irritation for many ordinary families. The market for switching has surely grown as a result of this concern.
However, recent polls pour cold water on the idea that price caps are a guaranteed vote-winning policy. One of the last detailed polls I can find on the subject – a YouGov poll from 2017 – showed relatively few people considered energy costs to be a significant personal hardship and that hardly anyone thought the cost of energy was an issue of national importance.
That said, the poll also showed interventionist policy arguments played well with the electorate – particularly the policy most closely associated with the Conservatives. Free market and non-interventionist arguments played less well although this 2015 poll showed people were open to the idea of developing new sources of energy that might keep prices down – an arguably pro-market suggestion.
If the opinion research is a mess, what are we to make of it all? Probably the following: a) the Government’s new policy offer has a chance of cutting through to the public, even in its nuanced form; b) it will be well received by those that hear it but will probably act as a symbol the Conservatives are “on your side” as opposed to being an actual, material reason to vote Conservative; and c) to have any real impact it would need to be built up into a package of policy announcements on a broader theme – boosting disposable income, fixing broken markets etc (although I’m personally very sceptical about the power of the latter).
This final point is the troubling one for Conservatives. If such a policy can really only be made to fly by making it part of a broader campaigning theme, it naturally suggests the Conservatives ought to consider a suite of more interventionist policies. There’s no question that, at one level, this would be immediately interesting and potentially popular with many voters in the short-term. It’s the logical next step to what many Conservative commentators are saying about the future of the Party’s economic policy.
But such a path risks creating serious problems. Intervening in the economy in this way casts serious doubt on the merits of the free market economy and promotes the idea that politicians and technocratic advisers know best. It’s hard to see what the Conservatives offer in this world that Labour can’t offer in a more compelling way. I also don’t believe most people think that capitalism “needs reform” in the way many commentators are suggesting and I cannot imagine ever hearing the words coming out of an ordinary voter’s mouth.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, developing policies along these lines risks undermining the Conservatives’ hopefully-long-term vision for Britain outside the EU. This is a country which is confident, innovative, pro-business and modern. This policy and similar ones like it risk making Britain look like a worried, failing, statist economy – like many in the EU we’re leaving behind. We should all therefore hope the price cap is an isolated, opportunistic policy that doesn’t signal any meaningful policy shift.