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When 62% of Conservative voters want energy run in the public sector, it’s fair to say the left has won the argument (75% of Labour voters agree, 68% of Lib Dems).
Yet public ownership is opposed passionately by the Conservative government, while the leader of the opposition has said he is “not in favour” of it – despite his election on a platform that committed to “bring rail, mail, water and energy into public ownership to end the great privatisation rip-off and save you money on your fares and bills”.
Public ownership is on the media’s radar, too. When Labour leader Keir Starmer announced his policy to freeze bills this week, he was asked why he wouldn’t also nationalise energy, replying that: “In a national emergency where people are struggling to pay their bills … the right choice is for every single penny to go to reducing those bills.”
But so long as energy remains privatised, every single penny won’t. Billions of pennies will keep going to shareholders instead.
The energy market was fractured under the mass privatisations of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s. It contains three sectors: producers or suppliers (those that produce energy), retailers (those that sell you energy), and distribution or transmission (the infrastructure that transports energy to your home).
It is important to bear this in mind when we’re talking about taking energy into public ownership. We need to be clear about what we want in public ownership and why.
By 2019, Labour had a detailed plan on how to do this – worked up by the teams around then shadow business and energy secretary Rebecca Long Bailey and then shadow chancellor John McDonnell. The plan is not the only way, but it illustrates what exists and how one could go about re-establishing a public energy ecosystem, run for people not profit.
The recent TUC report shows the cost of nationalising the ‘Big 5’ energy retailers – British Gas, E.ON, EDF, Scottish Power and Ovo – to be £2.8bn, which would go on buying all the companies’ shares. That’s a lot of money, equivalent to more than the annual budget of the Sure Start programme in 2009/10 (its peak year). But it’s a one-off cost, not an annual one.
And it’s not like the current privatised system doesn’t have its costs: since June 2021, the UK government has spent £2.7bn bailing out 28 energy companies that collapsed because they put short-term profits ahead of long-term stability – companies like Bulb Energy. We have spent billions of pounds already to get nothing in return. So £2.8bn is not a large amount of money to pay to gain these assets, rather than just bailing them out.
The big energy retail companies made £23bn in dividends between 2010 and 2020 according to Common Wealth, and £43bn if you include share buy-backs. What you choose to do with that surplus in public ownership is another matter: you could use it to invest in new clean energy or to lower bills or fund staff pay rises, rather than subject your workers to fire-and-rehire practices as British Gas did last year.
Labour’s previous plan also involved taking the distribution networks – the National Grid – into public ownership. This would end the profiteering at this level, too – with £13bn paid out in dividends over the five years prior to 2019. As Long Bailey said at the time, we need “public driven and coordinated action, without which we simply will not be able to tackle climate change”. Like previous nationalisations, the purchase of the grid and distribution networks could be achieved by swapping shares for government bonds. By international accounting standards, the cost is fiscally neutral as the state gains a revenue-generating asset, which more than pays for the bond yield.