Text of a speech given by Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy at Prospect's Energy Summit in Westminster on 4th April 2019
As a union, Prospect has a real sense of not only urgency but potentially impending crisis in relation to energy. This is an instinct that's born out of our deep experience with representing members across all aspects of the energy industry and our growing membership within renewables.
Everything we are seeing is pointing towards the need for a new convening space in which we discuss energy long term. Because I think the biggest challenge ahead of us is that, while energy has always been an important talking point in the economy, it is now becoming partisan, and partisan to a point that will badly serve not only the people in the industry but also the consumers that they serve.
Now I've been around the energy industry for a long time. When I had a proper job in the union(!) it was as a field official representing energy members. I cut my teeth around the depots, the power stations and the actual powerlines. So I think it's just worth us reminding ourselves where we've been and how we get here. If you go back to 1989 to 1990 the cusp of privatization then perhaps you're looking at a central generating board, regional electricity companies, there was no energy trading there wasn't a competitive supply market. There was then a process of privatization and what I think of as a journey from paternal, centrally dispatched energy, to potentially active consumers and, particularly in the regulated network businesses, there was drive to use basic economic theory to regulate rate of return.
Along that journey I think we got to a point where populism started to take over from expertise. We represent experts and of course in the context of the Brexit discussions there has been a very unfortunate assault on experts and we're apparently not supposed to listen to them anymore. But this is an area where you absolutely must listen to the people that we have the privilege to represent.
I think we have been in a really unfortunate period where our friends in the energy companies have degraded the energy brand. They didn't intend to, but they did, and they degraded it through the whole process of doorstep knocking, selling electricity like it was a commodity, and forgetting that actually it is a staple of human life and existence. Because, you know if the telly is not on we can we can get by. I'm even told you can get by without our phones. But when it comes to electricity, when it comes to gas, when it comes to providing for the staples of life this isn't just a commodity in the normal sense.
That degrading of energy brand is something that we deeply regret because we're so proud of the people that work in the industry, and whether it be nuclear, networks, renewables, when people challenge the nature of those activities I always say ‘go and talk to the people, go and see what they do, go and witness their professionalism, go and see how they manage these assets’. And by the way, you’ll probably find if you immerse yourself in it, you'll want the people that you care about to go and work in this industry because it offers the opportunity to work in sophisticated environments with long-term quality employment. Our members were lauded few years ago in the storms. When they are tramping across fields dealing with 11 kV lines that are down and so on, they are like an emergency service. But that's not the public perception of energy.
I think it's a really important time for the industry, in all its forms, to realize that the idea of energy democracy has something of a spirit of the times. There is a zeitgeist there that some people are tapping into. And the issue is not necessarily market versus ownership, it's about outcome. We talk these days about the trilemma for energy; affordable, secure and which is low or zero carbon. There needs to be a thought process about those three elements, and actually the distance between what people rank in those three and their overall influence on energy policy. I don’t know about you, but I don't talk to a lot of people who are necessarily talking about decarbonisation, even though it is a huge issue. And I'm not talking to people either who are worried about security of supply, you know why? Because they take it for granted. But they do talk about cost. What we are failing to do, whether it is the industry, trade unions or the political community, is having an honest conversation with civic society about what security and carbon-free means in terms of affordability and energy prices.
We are not having that conversation in an honest way and we probably haven't had it for a decade or more. What has emerged from the conversation so far this morning is the absolute need for long term thinking. What are we facing right now in terms of political progress for us, is about addressing that trilemma against the background of a proper conversation, informed by experts, with civic society. But instead it looks like we are heading towards more partisanship.
We know there's going to be a White Paper, we can assume that not even the Conservative Party now will put complete faith in market solutions, but they're likely to look at incremental changes within a retained market framework. That's going to be counter-posed with Labour’s plan for public ownership. This year we could have both a White Paper and an election and that in itself would be potentially destabilizing. We know about some of Labour’s plans for energy, and here's where Prospect’s credentials as an independent, speaking truth to power, trade union comes in. Because while there are parts of the emerging policy which have some interesting features and may well be speaking to the spirit of the age, we also have some cause for concern. For example, we hear about a new National Energy Agency which could be a repository for experts, with potential for taking a long term view, but it also could sound like 1970s state planning to a lot of people. And some of the things we are hearing about the tone of some of the proposals in the process of renationalising parts of the energy system veer towards a kind of populism that does not help sensible debate on energy policy. So we want to bring to this discussion a convening space where we listen to expertise, and where we focus on the outcomes we all want to achieve.
I want to close by saying few words about just transition. Now just transition is a phrase on a lot of people's lips. And it is clear that there are a lot of people that actually don't understand the communities and the people we are talking about here. That is why just transition must be built into the future direction of energy policy, but crucially it must involve people who actually know a thing or two about these jobs and these communities.
We don't want to see energy become more partisan. We want to see energy influenced by the experts that are in this room and in our membership and beyond. And I will close with by urging everyone involved in this debate to think carefully about this, because there are some troubling tones and language in some of the proposals for change, but it is also time for the industry to open its mind to how it influences civic society and politics, if it wants to retain what it sees as some of the benefits of the approach that we've had for the last few decades.