Three weeks ago during Labour's autumn conference, Ed Miliband seized the political initiative with both hands by announcing that if his party won the 2015 General Election, one of its top priorities would be to freeze fuel bills for 20 months.
Yesterday it was the SNP's turn to get in on the act, with the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealing a plan to cut the average family's fuel bill by £70 if Scots vote for independence in the referendum next September. It would involve removing an obligation on utility companies to fund energy-saving schemes like free insulation on people's homes, a cost that the companies add to consumers' bills. Instead, those important energy efficiency measures would be paid for entirely by the Scottish Government, which already provides £80m to fund them. She pre-empted any protests that this would result in higher taxes by claiming that it would in fact be paid for by an independent Scotland qualifying for particular forms of green funding from the European Union. The initiative outdid Labour, she claimed, because it was "not a short-term measure but a real and lasting cut in Scottish energy bills", averaging around 5%.
It is the sort of political promise that she can be sure will generate plenty of headlines, but the details remain vague. How exactly will it be paid for? Sceptics, and there are many of them, will wish to see the fine print on where the money will be coming from before making up their minds. Even if it is accepted that an independent Scotland could swiftly join the European Union, it is arguable whether Scotland would be able to negotiate a rebate from the EU worth the same as its current share of the UK rebate, so even if it acquired the EU funding identified by Ms Sturgeon for this measure, it might at the same time be missing out on more in lost rebate.
The announcement was nevertheless eye-catching and showed a determination to counter Labour's dominance of an issue that has topped the political agenda for several weeks. In the run-up to the independence referendum, the SNP knows that having a Conservative-led government at Westminster is a great asset to the cause, given the unpopularity of the Tories in Scotland. Alex Salmond's repeated calls for David Cameron to face him in a televised debate underline just how much that is the case. If Labour has a commanding lead in the polls come next September and therefore seems set fair to win the election, that will do little to advance the cause of independence.
So it is no wonder that the SNP is keen to push Labour off the moral high ground, trying to trump their gambit on freezing fuel prices and tussling with them over the bedroom tax. Ms Sturgeon made the welcome announcement yesterday that the Scottish Government's £20m fund to help mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax would be extended until next year, after Finance Secretary John Swinney had previously said it would not. Both announcements reflect the fact that Labour and the SNP are vying for dominance of the same political territory.
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