Energy price crisis: Keir Starmer's Labour must come up with bold plan to give people hope – Susan Dalgety

What’s the point of the Labour Party if it is not to stand up for the interests of the many, not the few?

I ask, not as a commentator in search of a controversy, nor as a long-time Labour member, but as a householder on a modest income staring in horror at the prospect of an energy bill of £5,000 next year.

I ask too as the mother of two sons who work in construction, both with young families, and facing the prospect of a recession and mortgage interest rate rises.

I also ask because, so far, the Labour Party has been strangely muted in its response to the cost-of-living crisis that is starting to engulf households across the country and will threaten the health and well-being of millions.

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People will die this winter through lack of money, as Nicola Sturgeon warned earlier this week, and for once she was not guilty of self-righteous hyperbole.

Yet Keir Starmer and his shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves are only now rousing themselves from their self-imposed slumber and setting out Labour’s plans.

Starmer announced yesterday during his visit to Edinburgh that Labour would end the punitive premium on pre-payment meters, and that he and Reeves will set out their full prospectus next week.

“We were waiting for the forecasts this week to finalise our plans and have it out well in advance of the price cap announcement on August 26,” a senior Labour source told the Huffington Post.

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Keir Starmer can learn from Tony Blair's attitude towards leading the Labour party in opposition (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

Given that Labour is not in power, and the next general election is likely two years away, some may argue that is understandable that Starmer and Reeves have been relatively quiet in recent weeks. But that is to misunderstand the national mood as well as the role of the opposition.

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People are scared. Frightened that they will lose control of their increasingly precarious household budgets. Worried that they will have to choose between heating or eating. Terrified they won’t have enough money each month to meet their most basic commitments.

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They need leaders to stand up for them, to be on their side. To offer them practical ideas on how to tackle a crisis that will see bills rise beyond the means of most people while energy companies make record profits. Above all, people need hope.

So far that has come, not from the official opposition party, but from a former Prime Minister and a money advice expert.

In the past week, Gordon Brown has called for an emergency budget to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. He has demanded that the price-cap be scrapped and he has urged the government to re-nationalise energy companies, albeit temporarily, unless they can cut their prices.

In what some may perceive as a dig at Keir Starmer as well as Boris Johnson, who have both just returned from their summer break, the former PM wrote in the Guardian: "Time and tide wait for no-one. Neither do crises. They don't take holidays, and don't politely hang fire – certainly not to suit the convenience of a departing PM and the whims of two potential successors."

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And consumer campaigner Martin Lewis, chair of Moneysaving Expert, broke off from his own family holiday to warn that millions of people are facing a "terrible cataclysmic risk" this winter, and criticised the Tory government for doing nothing.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain he said: “What we are facing here is a financial emergency that risks lives. I accept the point that Boris Johnson is running a zombie government and can't do much but the two candidates – one of them will be our Prime Minister – they need to get together in the national interest to tell us the bare minimum of what they will do."

And so does the Labour Party. The public campaign on the biggest economic crisis for at least a generation cannot be left to a former Prime Minister, glowering in his North Queensferry home, and a multimillionaire, recently dubbed the “real shadow chancellor”.

It must be led by Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and that means the leadership of the people’s party stepping up to the plate and leading a national campaign in Parliament, in the media, on the doorsteps.

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And Labour should be speaking directly to the energy companies. In 1995, two years before the general election that swept Labour back into power, Tony Blair revealed that his shadow ministers had negotiated an “understanding” with British Telecom to open the telecommunications market to “free and fair” competition from 2002.

Blair was not yet Prime Minister. He had no legal authority to broker an agreement with a big corporation, yet he had gone over the head of the then-Tory government ministers to secure an agreement that would benefit the British people.

He told Labour’s annual conference that, “in return for access to the market I can announce they (British Telecom) have agreed, as they build their (fibre optic) network, to connect up every school, every college, every hospital and every library in Britain for free”.

It was this bold, confident leadership, as much as 13 years of Tory rule, that secured the Labour Party its biggest ever victory on May 1, 1997.

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If the cost-of-living crisis had emerged in 1995, it is impossible to imagine either Blair or his then shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown staying silent as millions of Britons panicked.

There is plenty to criticise about the Labour government under the leadership of Blair and then Brown. But there is also much for Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves to emulate.

This new generation of Labour leaders must set aside their natural caution and show that they have the courage and the ideas to rebuild our broken economy and create a new Britain out of the ashes of Brexit and a global pandemic.

The energy crisis is their first big test. But they must act now, before it’s too late for all of us.

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