Andrew Burgin, from the Left Unity EC, on a potentially key development in the emerging struggles against the cost of living crisis.
The latest Cornwall Insight prediction for energy prices is that October will see an 81% increase in the price cap taking an average or typical bill to £3,582 a year. There is predicted to be a further price rise of 19% in January and then the typical bill will be £4,266 a year.
Around 6.5 million UK households are in the grip of fuel poverty, and this winter they will be unable to afford to heat their homes to the temperature needed to keep warm and healthy; these price increases will take that figure to more than 8.4 million households. These rising energy costs, alongside low incomes and energy-inefficient homes, are restricting people’s options, leaving them in impossible situations like having to choose to heat their home, feed their children or pay their rent or mortgage.
More than 5 million households have no savings whatsoever. These price increases are contributing to the growing trend whereby households self-disconnect from the energy supply in order not to go further into debt. This is not sustainable and as the least well-off live in the most energy inefficient homes it also contributes to poor health and increases the pressures on the NHS.
Meanwhile the energy companies and the city firms that trade in these commodities are raking in billions of pounds in profits, dividends and bonuses. In the three months to June, BP alone made a profit of £7.6 billion. Centrica’s most recent accounts showed operating profits of £699m and at least four board members are multi-millionaires. Its non-executive directors were paid almost £1m.
And the massive increase in energy prices is just one element of the cost-of-living crisis.
Rising petrol, food and energy prices have pushed many households in the UK and around the world into an unprecedented crisis with millions of households no longer able to pay their monthly bills.
The cost-of-living crisis is driven by higher inflation, and low wage growth leaving working people worse off. The crisis has been exacerbated by the Ukraine war, but the pressure on living standards and the increasing impoverishment is the direct result of the privatisation and profit agenda of the system as a whole. We are reaping the legacy of 40 years of neo-liberalism and the failure of the labour movement to successfully or adequately challenge it.
The cost-of-living crisis is only one of a range of serious crises that threaten to engulf working people. There is the war in Ukraine which is a tinder box and could easily spread. The massive re-armament programmes and military expenditure account for more than 2.1 trillion dollars in 2022; ending world hunger would cost a small fraction of that. The military programmes of the USA account for more than 800 billion dollars alone. The ratcheting up of tensions by the USA/NATO in the South China sea and the threats to China open a serious possibility of future nuclear-armed war between great powers.
And billions of people are now suffering the effects of climate change, particularly in the Global South which is ill-equipped to mitigate those effects. In southern Madagascar more than 1.1m people are going hungry. More than 500,000 children under the age of five are at risk of being acutely malnourished. Climate change is a central cause of this famine. As David Beasley, from the UN’s World Food Programme says, ‘This is an area of the world that has contributed nothing to climate change, but now, they’re the ones paying the highest price,’ This is the world’s first ‘climate famine’; it won’t be the last.
What must give us hope is the struggles that are now engaged on these crucial issues. The building of serious mass campaigns against climate change, the ongoing anti-war movement whose longevity is inspirational and the new movements that are now taking the stage to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.
The most significant development in the recent period is the re-emergence of the trades unions prepared to take action to defend their members’ pay and conditions and the widespread support that these actions have generated. We have seen a group of trade union leaders prepared to engage and lead their members in industrial action. The election of Sharon Graham as the general secretary of Unite was one sign and she has stressed the support that the union will give to those prepared to take strike action. And there are others – Dave Ward from the CWU, and the leadership of the RMT union has led the way and its leaders particularly Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey have been exemplary in their dealings with the mainstream press and media and in communicating the justice of the union’s dispute. There have been trade union leaders before who have come together to co-operate on broader political and industrial matters such as the so-called ‘Awkward Squad’ in the early 2000s but what defines this as a different political moment is the widespread support that these strikes and disputes have generated among working people. We now see a whole series of wildcat/ unofficial strikes taking place throughout the country at Mitsubishi in Teesside, at Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery, at Lynemouth power station and at dozens of other workplaces including many Amazon depots.
There is movement in the working class and a re-building of confidence and militancy. The trade union movement has been under the cosh ever since the great Miners’ strike was lost. There have been many bitter and important battles since then, but this now represents a serious fightback.
And it takes place in a situation where the Labour Party has shifted sharply to the right and has placed itself in the opposing camp to the working class.
For the first time in a long time, and despite the draconian trade union laws which continue to shackle all industrial action, there is now serious discussion about generalised industrial action and a programme for political change. This, I believe, is why the launch this week of the Enough is Enough campaign is very important. It can bring together all those wishing to fight on a programme of social and political change. Its five demands are: A real pay rise; Slash energy bills; End food poverty; Decent homes for all; Tax the rich. The campaign has struck a chord and more than 250,000 people have signed up. The launch video has been seen by more than 4 million people.
The campaign includes unions, community groups, housing action activists and two Labour MPs who the Labour Party is trying to deselect – two of the best MPs, Zarah Sultana and Ian Byrne. Of course, it is early days, and we will, in supporting this new movement, be arguing for it to expand, to get more unions involved, to create local groups and a democratic national structure. But what marks it out from the beginning is both its stated determination to take action in support of workers in struggle and its programme of political demands in support of working people.
Of course, there have been other significant initiatives such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project and the anti-austerity People’s Assembly campaign. Peace and Justice supported and helped organise the Just Stop Oil protest recently which was good, but I think the hopes of the many tens of thousands who support the campaign were that it would develop a much more strategic campaigning approach, potentially leading towards a new political organisation. The People’s Assembly has a national demonstration planned for November 5th and has played an important role in the struggle against the Tory government’s austerity measures over many years. No doubt Enough is Enough will be part of the preparations for the demonstration and I hope there will be a coming together of these campaigns; both have significant contributions to make.
The crisis for ordinary people will hit before November 5th. The next energy price rise is going to be on October 1st, just as we head into the coldest months. Inflation is close to 10% and will rise to near 14% in the next year with food bills increasing at an even faster rate.
There is also a campaign which has been set up by an anonymous grouping called Don’t Pay UK, organising for those people who pay their energy bills by direct debit to cancel these on October 1st. This campaign has generated a lot of publicity and over a hundred thousand people have signed up to cancel their payments. Don’t Pay say that they will only go ahead if a million people agree to do this. I have some concerns about the campaign, particularly the possibility that participating individuals will be isolated rather than part of a collective struggle, as well as the anonymity of the organising group. I am assured by those that do know them that they are all good people. However, it is impossible to have any discussion about the strategy of such a campaign when the organisers are incognito. For example, BBC Newsnight covered the cost-of-living crisis and discussed both Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay UK and interviewed Mick Lynch for the former. Don’t Pay UK was represented by ‘Simon’ who has decided to cancel his direct debit. Simon said that cancelling your direct debit was an individual decision, ‘we are all grown ups’. The whole question of pre-payment and self-disconnection cannot be discussed fully with a campaign organised like this; moreover, the identification of this with the Poll Tax Campaign is problematic and it is not really comparable. The organisers of the Poll Tax campaign were public and some, such as Tommy Sheridan, did go to prison for opposing Poll Tax Warrant Sales. So, I hope the organisers reveal themselves and that a strategic discussion can take place more broadly.
The Executive Committee of my organisation Left Unity has agreed to give Enough is Enough every possible support. There is a new mood of hope with a significant struggle now under way – and we have to see it through. Central to this will be an examination of the kind of political organisation that is necessary given the betrayal and cowardice of the leadership of the Labour Party. The five demands of the Enough is Enough campaign constitute a programme of action and as Dave Ward said at the RMT rally recently at Kings Cross – ‘we need a programme that addresses the real concerns of working people’. So, I believe this is potentially a big step forward and we welcome this new movement.
Let’s make it work. Enough is Enough is organising more than 50 launch rallies across Britain, local groups will be set up in order to take the struggle forward. We will be there in support. Millions of people are going to be facing terrible hardship this winter and we need to organise and mobilise effectively to bring about fundamental change.
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