Saturday, 31 May 2008

Love, love me do

Electric kittenLabour just wants to be loved. But it seems that whatever populist move the party makes just now, there are as many people showing derision as delight.

Brown's announcement that he has instigated measures to help the 'fuel poor’ is a case in point. Many blame the government for the sorry state of the nation, including the economic hardships faced by many in the face of rising food and energy bills. Perhaps that's a little harsh - the world markets, substantially to blame for these price rises, are hardly under the control of UK politicians. But the public certainly have a reasonable gripe when it comes to high taxation, the spiraling costs of benefits and allowances, the daylight robbery of petrol duties and VAT and ever growing local government costs. So it would seem worthy of a responsible government to do what it can to alleviate the pressure of rising energy prices. And Brown, recognising that his party's once near-unassailable poll leads are now a distant memory, is keen to appeal to people's most important priority. Their pockets.

Gordon arrived on his white charger this week with cunning plans to assist those voters - I mean citizens - whose gas and electricity costs are above the magic 10% of their income. Measures included giving £150,000 to an Ofgem / Citizen's Advice awareness scheme on social assistance; £3 million to boost 'microgeneration' programmes (such as domestic heat pumps) and, controversially, moves to pass data to energy companies on who amongst their clientele is receiving state benefits. This is intended to ensure that the social assistance schemes offered by the energy companies (who have apparently been persuaded to increase their funding by £225 million) get to the right people.

The government's track record on handling personal data was severely compromised with the loss of millions of child benefit records just a few short months ago, so the prospect of commercial companies being freely given information on the financial circumstances of hundreds of thousands of families does raise a few eyebrows. All justified, says Age Concern, under the circumstances.

But that's not what most of the criticism is concerned with.
Comments pages on many news sites quickly filled up with messages of resentment that the help on energy bills was being narrowly targeted. There is little dissent that the elderly should receive assistance, but plenty of angst was apparent from 'middle income' earners who can not fathom why, when their finances were being squeezed as well, the 'benefit scroungers' are being given yet another handout. And why, after all, would energy companies give away profits to the poor? Surely they will simply increase bills to 'wealthier' customers to compensate?

Again, those individuals who have saved and not frittered away income on smoking, drinking and such like, so that they can scrape together a living without recourse to benefits, will lose out. Those who have spent their money will be given more, subsidised by the prudent.

OAPs on the other hand, and those on pre-pay meters for whom no subsidy announcements were forthcoming, poured scorn on the government initiative. Many criticised the still significant outlay they would have to make for home insulating materials. Help The Aged fears that the moves are too little to prevent many of the estimated quarter of a million pensioners pushed into fuel poverty this year being left in the cold this winter.

Of course the government's political opponents jumped to denounce the moves, saying that they were merely a rehash of existing ideas and policies. Not a few pointed out that the French experience is somewhat different, since they spent the last few decades building 80+ nuclear plants to meet their energy needs. Others highlighted the smokescreen of increased North Sea oil output, which even the government was forced to admit would not make any discernable difference to petrol prices at the pumps.

Brown and his party are in the 'damned if they do, damned if they don't' position that they will come to find increasingly familiar over the coming months. Being generous (uncharacteristically!), I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their motivations for trying to help the 'fuel poor' are socially and not politically motivated. But that is not the perception held by many of the people that Brown is trying to reach out to. For the external economic problems that plague the country, out of the government's power to change, will figure large in people's minds for some while to come. And after 11 years, with Labour now looking to have outstayed its welcome, the populace will happily blame Gordon for their misery.

Gordon wants to be seen as the man who had, is and will continue to fight for us. But even with the most charitable assessment of his chances, you have to conclude his uphill battle verges on the vertical.

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