16 June 2011

The next best thing to re-nationalisation

There are now in the region of 20 companies in the UK, fighting amongst themselves to sell you your gas and electricity, with hundreds of different rates and tariffs and brands.

I'm not sure how any pro-privatisation capitalist can claim that having 20 profit-making firms doing the same basic job is somehow more "efficient" than one state-owned non-profit provider. It's not like choosing a cable TV package or broadband speed. Gas is gas and electric is electric. You don't get gas that heats your house quicker if you change to a different provider.

Still, after the miracle of competition that was supposed to save us all money, our bills - and by happy co-incidence energy company profits - keep on ballooning. I live in a normal two up two down mid terrace, I'm pretty sure I am not some sort of crazed power glutton yet my gas and electric bill has reached £90 every month. And with Scottish Power announcing their increases last week, it's not going to be long before it creeps to £100 a month .

The fatuous Liberal Democrat Energy secretary Chris Huhne proclaimed last week that the answer to ever rising inflation-busting prices for our basic essentials was to switch suppliers, and promised to introduce yet more competition in the market, as if even more confusion would solve the problem of rising bills.

There's a lot that could be done to cut energy bills. A state-initiated scheme to mass produce wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable energy resources could have the triple bonus of reducing unemployment, solving our long-term energy crisis and bringing the bills right back down again. But that's a discussion for another day.

Until those days come, people will still have to pay the bills. And that's why I was so pleased to find out that the Co-Operative has started peddling gas and electric.

I'm not going to pretend that mutuals will solve all the problems inherent in our society. I'm not even a particularly ethical consumer. Consumer boycotts have always struck me as futile - making out that by shopping and not buying things from the worst offenders, we can somehow force the corporations to be nicer. I remember a few years ago being told by competing left-wing sects in the same month to boycott both Coke and Pepsi for supposed crimes towards the class. Neither appears to have shaken those companies to the foundations, and Nestle still seems to be doing very well despite the boycott against it being launched in 1977.

But with the average annual gas and electric bill in the UK costing each household £1250 every year, it's a serious amount of wedge to be handing over. So if you can hand that wedge over to a mutual - owned and run equally by each of its members with all profits shared out equally on that basis - it HAS to be better than giving it to one of the corporations.

I ran my details through several online comparison sites, and the Co-Op Pioneer tariff happily came out in the top 2 on every one of them. There is only one tariff on offer from them, and it's very simple to understand unlike the dozens of confusing deals from the likes of Scottish Power. As any desperate Lib Dem minister will tell you, it costs nothing to switch and if you are Co-Op member, you make money towards your annual dividend with every bill you pay.

Best of all, no private firm will be making massive profits and farming it off to tax-havens off the back of you paying through the nose for gas as we suffer our next freezing winter.

Oh and it's fifty quid off the first bill if you sign up now before July 22.

It's not a particularly revolutionary act, but five minutes work could make quite a bit of difference. Just imagine the political message if a million people moved their gas and electric consumption away from the short-term profiteers and over to the Co-Op, which pledges to be long-term in its approach and strategy to keep prices consistent.

Only time will tell if they truly will be any different to the rest, or if they have a positive impact on the rest of the market. But it has to be worth a go.

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