WMN opinion: Politicians get the message – utility bills are too high
Politicians never listen to the people and don't understand what's important to ordinary voters. That, at least, is the generally accepted view of very many of the electorate. But sometimes they do catch on. And while Labour leader Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy bills if he wins the election might have lacked a bit of thinking through, there is no doubt it struck a chord with the man in the street for whom paying the electric and the gas has become a major headache in recent years.
The Conservatives, of course, rubbished the idea and warned that it would put the lights out because energy businesses would be unable to invest as wholesale prices rose and their income stayed frozen. Yet it is hard to imagine that, behind the scenes, Conservative ministers weren't extremely concerned that Labour had come up with a popular idea which would help boost their electoral chances – and the Tories needed one of their own.
Today, they have produced just that. Instead of energy they have chosen another over-priced utility – water – to focus attention upon. And they are suggesting a three-pronged attack on the water companies. Measures to force them to use excessive profits to reduce customers' bills is top of the list so far as Defra Secretary Owen Paterson is concerned. The Treasury, meanwhile, want a tax hike and an initiative to encourage more competition among companies so customers can shop around for their water, just as they can for their energy.
You can't go wrong, if you are in Government, bashing the water companies, especially here in the South West where we pay the highest water bills in Britain. And while the service we receive from South West Water has improved immeasurably since the days of cloudy, muddy tap water and heavily polluted seas, the proportion of many people's income that goes on water and sewerage charges is far too high, just as it is with energy.
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Belatedly, then, the cost of living, which continues to cripple many people even as the economy improves, has taken centre stage on the political agenda. Whether Mr Miliband ever gets the chance to put his energy price freeze into effect remains to be seen. Whether the Conservatives riposte on water charges is a genuine pledge that will bring down bills or a bit of window dressing to win some friends is uncertain. Watch this space, however. It might just determine how you vote.