Has power been a poison chalice for the Lib Dems?

A very good friend, who has always been Lib Dem through and through, has been really disappointed with how the Lib Dems have behaved in Government. They have demonstrated that they hold no strongly held beliefs and will do whatever seems politically expedient. Remember how they were against nuclear power? I do. He does. In a volte-face the Lib Dems are now backing nukes. Bless.

Where once the Lib-Dems got the protest vote this now goes to UKIP – reflecting people’s concerns about the EU and immigration.

My friend thinks that many other Lib Dem supporters feel that way. A straw poll in my village shows that he is not alone. Perhaps the Lib Dem vote will collapse at the next election and that the Lib Dems might not be in existence for a generation and maybe people will forget about them?

Of course the big baddy remains George Osborne. And he does seem to unite opposition – a real fillip for Ed Milliband. There are strong hopes that Ed will get it together in time and clearly win the next election for Labour.

Disappointment

But anyone hoping for radical action to tackle the hegemony of the big six and address the level of energy bills must be sorely disappointed by the outcome of the Labour Party Conference.

There was the usual green guff about tackling climate change, boosting investment in low carbon technologies and strengthening the Green Investment Bank. This all sounds very good but in real terms it is difficult to quantify the real and meaningful immediate consequences of these issues.

With a General Election next year voters will be judging the Government on how they have delivered on their promises. The Tories promised to be the greenest government ever but hampered by those deeply principled Lib Dems do not have much to show for it. Yes emissions have not grown but we have had virtually no economic growth over the last few years. Looking green when the economy is doing little is very easy. Keeping emissions down when the economy is growing is another matter.

Anticipation of political events is important for those wanting to stay in power. The current government has nearly been unhinged by recent events. The Scottish referendum is a case in point. Had the vote gone the other way it would have had a major impact on energy. The British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements (Betta) would have had to have been unpicked- a waste of all the work to set it up.

Like the rest of the UK, there were concerns about affordability and the ability to pay rising energy bills. This will go on as the country tries to meet emissions targets even though the energy companies are making fat profits although their costs are falling.

This should raise big question marks over the regulator and its approach to tackling market power. Should the big six be split up? Or should vertical integration be pulled apart? Are these election vote winners? We may be seeing the Lib Dems for the last time but they still have a little time to prove that they are not a complete waste of space.

Dominic Maclaine is an EPG Associate and used to be the editor of New Power before he sold the business. He conducted PhD research into electricity supply competition in the UK and Norway at SPRU. He was previously the editor of the monthly newsletter Power UK published by Platts (and previously the Financial Times). He is currently writing a book about recent developments in the UK electricity market, to be published by Routledge.

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