With catastrophe looming for millions this winter, calls are growing for non-payment of energy bills. To succeed, such moves must be linked to mass action, and a bold programme of nationalisation and socialist planning.
Nowhere is the cost-of-living crisis clearer than out-of-control energy bills.
Already in March, 1-in-7 people were in arrears, and 1-in-8 had gone without heating, water, or electricity. And now new forecasts show the price cap will rise to nearly £3,400 by the winter; significantly higher than the £2,800 predicted in May.
Things are much worse than many predicted. More than a third of UK households could now face energy poverty this winter.
And this is only the beginning. Industry experts are predicting that the price cap could be raised even further to £3,840 in January, with the most vulnerable hit by monthly energy costs of £500. Furthermore, bills of over £300 per month are expected to be the norm “well into 2024”.
Even the ruling class, and their hangers-on in Parliament, are waking up to the full extent of this impending catastrophe. A cross-party committee of MPs, for example, has come out to say that the government’s pitiful support package has been “eclipsed by the scale of the crisis”.
But it was always obvious – to all but the most callous or shortsighted politicians – that these measures would only ever offer a short respite.
At the same time, while millions are plunged further into poverty, the bosses have made super-profits. And they have protected these profits by passing on increased costs to workers in the form of higher prices and lower real wages.
Recently, for example, energy monopolies Shell and Centrica announced record profits for their shareholders. The former posted ‘earnings’ of £10 billion in the second quarter of this year, whilst the latter – the owner of British Gas – reported operating profits of £1.3bn during the first half of 2022.
Even the government’s proposal for a windfall tax on these eye-watering profits seems to have faded.
Sunak’s announcement of a one-off tax on the energy sector might have upset some, with BP threatening to effectively sabotage future investment in the North Sea. But with the former chancellor now seeking to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, it is reported that he is “cooling” on the idea.
And all the talk from both Tory leadership hopefuls has sought to reassure the billionaires that, whether it be under Sunak or Truss, their government will be one of tax cuts and deregulation – a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
At the same time, Starmer’s Labour has attempted to outflank the Tories on the right, urging the Office for Budget Responsibility to review Sunak’s proposals.
Their own moderate proposals for a windfall tax, meanwhile, are woefully inadequate. The energy giants will simply evade such measures through havens and loopholes, or face them down with threats of ‘capital flight’.
With no leadership on either side, and few options open to people already pushed to the brink, popular money saving expert Martin Lewis has begun to issue passionate warnings that a “financial time-bomb” is ready to explode.
Lewis is right. Inflation has risen to levels not seen for forty years. The Tories are paralysed. And Starmer’s Labour are providing no alternative.
In this context, the social explosions seen in Sri Lanka or Kazakhstan in recent weeks and months – both over rocketing prices and an acute cost-of-living disaster – could soon be seen in Britain also.
Martin Lewis has already highlighted a brewing mood in support of a “consumer strike”: the idea of a mass non-payment campaign over energy bills, which is seemingly gaining traction.
One such campaign – called Don’t Pay UK – is rapidly gaining a following. The group is striving to gather pledges from one million people, with the goal of cancelling their direct debits en masse this autumn.
Speaking on Good Morning Britain, one representative from the campaign responded to accusations that they are inciting people to ‘steal’ energy, rightly asserting that energy monopolies can “effectively extort” ordinary people.
Don’t Pay UK are calling for people to stop paying their energy bills if companies don’t reduce them to an affordable level by Oct 1st.
But is refusing to pay the right way to protest about price hikes?
Local community organiser Simon explains why this action needs to be taken. pic.twitter.com/AHLeJj9mzM
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) July 22, 2022
We would add: it is the billionaires sitting atop all privatised industries and infrastructure who are guilty of theft, having syphoned public money into their pockets for decades.
In its material, Don’t Pay UK refers to the anti-poll tax campaign, when millions across Britain refused to pay Thatcher’s hated tax on the working class.
Led by the Militant, the forerunners of Socialist Appeal, this mass movement was so powerful that it even helped to bring down the Tory government of the day.
Militant activists strived to unite the movement, bringing together delegates from all the mass organisations of the working class in the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, and organising in working-class communities
This gave the movement enormous strength, allowing campaigners to mobilise workers and youth in mass coordinated action – including huge demonstrations of 250,000 in London and 50,000 in Glasgow.
Strikes and struggle
Such heroic struggles should definitely serve as inspiration for action today. But activists today who cite the success of the anti-poll tax movement should learn the real lessons from this chapter of history.
The Don’t Pay UK campaign, for example, encourages “community groups to take this idea [of a consumer strike] and run with it”.
But without proper organisation and structure, as was seen under the Militant’s leadership of the anti-poll tax campaign, such a call is unlikely to amount to anything.
At best, instead of a powerful mass movement for change, we will see atomised individuals taking a commendable – but ultimately futile – stand.
Instead of scattered, isolated consumer boycotts, what is needed are methods of class struggle: a mass campaign of strikes and protests, led by the trade unions, that organises residents and activists in working-class neighbourhoods across the country to fight for a clear socialist alternative.
For planning, not profit
Above all, therefore, what is needed is a bold political programme.
Don’t Pay UK say they have no uniting principles, nor “a set list of demands”. But to bring about genuine change, to unite a movement and take it forward, it is not enough to say what we are against. We must also be able to grab the problem by its root.
The energy crisis is a product of the anarchy of the capitalist market; of a system driven by profit, not by society’s needs.
Whilst millions go cold this winter, energy bosses will be profiting handsomely from scarcity and shortages – all whilst refusing to invest in new (green) supplies, storage, and infrastructure; or in a mass programme of retrofitting to insulate existing homes.
The cost-of-living crisis, therefore, can only be solved by expropriating the monopolies, placing industry under workers’ control, and planning the economy along socialist lines, for people not profit.
Capitalism is chaos and crisis. This bankrupt system is unable to provide even the most basic necessities. The only way forward is with militant class struggle – linked to the fight for revolution.