Tribune column, 4 October 2013

It’s taken long enough, but at last Ed Miliband seems to be finding a distinctive voice. His speech at Labour conference in Brighton was less than earth-shattering, but it was better than his previous efforts, not least because it contained some hints about what a Miliband Labour government would be like.

The most important, of course, was his promise of a two-year freeze on energy bills – a modest proposal but one sufficiently at odds with the free-market consensus to send the Tory press into a frenzy about how “Red Ed” was plotting a return to the extreme state socialism of the 1970s. That was a strange reaction, largely because no one under the age of 50 has an adult memory of the 1970s but also because anyone who, like me, was around then would be hard-pressed to remember much that was extreme or socialist about the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan – though we all have vivid memories of the lights going out during the three-day week in 1974, which happened under Ted Heath’s Tory government.

David Cameron and other senior Tories seem to have realised that the spectre of a return to the 1970s is not a runner. The line from the government is now that it feels the pain of gas and electricity bills but is powerless to act against the market – a breathtakingly hypocritical gambit given George Osborne’s enthusiasm for subsidised mortgages that will inflate further the already dangerous house price bubble in the south-east, but never mind.

The truth is that the pledge of a two-year energy bill freeze is not in itself a particularly big deal. The energy companies don’t like it, but they have been forewarned. They will almost certainly compensate by hiking their charges to consumers between now and spring 2015 and by buying gas and electricity in advance.

Nevertheless, it’s a politically astute move. The promise of an energy bill freeze chimes with the widespread feeling among voters that we’re being ripped off by private profiteers charging outrageous prices for the basics of life: not just heat and light, but rents, food, public transport, home insurance, water, telecoms, you name it.

Upmarket newspaper commentators have condescendingly tagged Miliband’s initiative as “populism” – by which they mean that it’s headline-grabbing and in tune with what people think – but it might just be more than that. For the first time in 20 years, a Labour leader dared to talk explicitly about market failure and suggested a small-scale palliative. It’s hardly a return to classic social democratic reformism, but at least it’s a start.


I have spent the past month grappling with the challenges of publishing books online. A year ago, my friend Anna Chen and I set up an imprint to publish alternative books of various kinds, dead trees and electronic, Aaaargh! Press.

Since then we’ve put out a book of poems, Reaching for my Gnu by Anna (in print and as an ebook) and two Kindle ebooks, the first a collection of columns by the legendary music journo Charles Shaar Murray, The Guitar Geek Dossier and the second Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by me and Kevin Davey.

We’re learning as we go along. Lesson number one is that you can’t do without Amazon: Jeff Bezos has established a global near-monopoly on book-selling, and you have to join in: Kindle is the only ebook format that makes sense or money. Lesson number two is that it isn’t free: Amazon takes at least 30 per cent of the sale price plus fees for hosting your book (otherwise known as sitting pretty). And lesson number three is that promotion is as difficult online as it ever was. If you offer a freebie, you lose sales. Hardly anyone looks at a Facebook post more than 30 minutes after it appears on your page. You’re lucky if you get five minutes’ attention for anything you put on Twitter. Everyone junks email from unknown senders.

But publishing online is also exciting. We’re not there yet, but I’ve seen the future and it might just work. Even on Amazon’s rates for hosting, you get 70 per cent minus a bit. As long as you don’t publish rubbish, as long as you publish enough, it could be how left-wing journalists keep body and soul together in the 21st century. If not, well, something else had better turn up …

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