Editorial: Winter chill, political spring

A two-year price freeze on energy bills, while welcome, is hardly sufficient, writes Michael Calderbank

December 19, 2013 · 4 min read

I don’t know if we’ll have a severe winter this year. But I do know that if there is it will be the poor and vulnerable who will be the worst hit.

In a recent Royal College of Nurses survey, nine out of 10 respondents working in A&E departments said that the current pressure on services, with deep cuts and the massive top-down NHS reorganisation, is putting patients in danger. In its recent report ‘Emergency care: an accident waiting to happen?’ the NHS Confederation warns that ‘a prolonged period of cold, a rapid increase in the acuity of patients presenting in A&Es or a lengthy norovirus season would be all it would take to bring many departments to breaking point’. Even health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that it will be ‘very, very tough . . . just to get through this winter’, a chilling warning.

But it won’t just be in hospitals where the cold could lead to a spike in deaths. As pensioner poverty and cuts to benefits leave more and more people facing a choice between eating or heating this winter, deaths from hypothermia, which have already doubled over a five-year period, could soar even further.

With the ‘big six’ energy companies announcing yet more eye-watering price increases, the government’s advice to ‘wear an extra jumper’ is little more than a sick joke. It will not just be those sleeping rough (whose numbers leapt by another 13 per cent last year, on top of a 43 per cent increase in 2010–11) who will need more than an extra layer to see them through to the spring. Whatever we might think of his own politics, Neil Kinnock’s famous warning ‘not to be ordinary, not to grow old, not to fall ill’ should a right-wing Tory government come to power seems strikingly prescient.

Right now you could be forgiven for thinking that a political spring seems some way off. Ed Miliband’s proposal for a two-year price freeze on energy bills, while welcome, is hardly a sufficient response. In October 2013, London business freesheet City AM lamented the fact that ‘there is sadly mass support for nationalisation and price controls’, on the basis of a YouGov survey that showed an overwhelming 68 per cent supported nationalisation of the energy companies, with just 21 per cent against. Similar scores were recorded for the railways and Royal Mail.

Despite votes along these lines at Labour conference, Miliband’s spin doctors were quick to rule out such a radical agenda. With Labour committed to keep within Tory day-to-day spending limits, impose a public sector pay freeze and stick with Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, the ‘alternative’ it looks set to offer in 2015 risks leaving most of its core supporters cold.

But if that’s how it looks from an English perspective, socialists in Scotland might be looking forward to 2014 with a greater sense of optimism, given the chance to shake up the status quo by voting for independence in September’s referendum. Ultimately, the question of where power ought to lie is potentially a much more radical question than even its most prominent advocates appear to realise. If the mainstream nationalism of the SNP does little to excite, the emergent forces coalescing around an alternative vision of an independent socialist Scotland suggest that there is a chance – I wouldn’t put it any more strongly – that the referendum might open up a much more wide-reaching discussion about what it would mean to genuinely shape our own collective destiny.

If Scotland were to go down this route then – who knows? – it might re-awaken the strategic imagination of the English left.

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