News | Social Movements / Organizing - UK / Ireland The UK Left against the Crisis

Across the country, people are joining forces and fighting back

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Author

Sophie K Rosa,

Union members march for better pay at the TUC’s “We Deserve Better” rally in London, June 2022. CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason

As it is across Europe, the cost of living crisis is making life more and more difficult in the United Kingdom. But from non-payment campaigns, to community organizing, to strikes — people are fighting back and demanding better on multiple fronts.

With inflation reaching 10 percent in July in the UK, the unequal impact of surging prices for essentials such as energy, housing, and food is especially stark: the rise in costs as a percentage of income for the poorest half of the UK population is nine times greater than for the richest 5 percent. The crisis is also impacting racialized groups more than white people, and women more than men.

Sophie K Rosa is an author and freelance journalist for Novara Media, Guardian, VICE, and CNN. Her book Radical Intimacy is forthcoming with Pluto Press.

The Conservative government’s interventions to support struggling households have of course fallen far short. Policy responses including a universal 400-pound energy bill discount and a one-off payment of 650 pounds to households on benefits, as well as a recent “energy price guarantee” limiting the amount energy bills can rise by may slightly soften the blow of rocketing inflation. Ultimately, however, they are short-term measures that simply kick the crisis further down the road, failing to go nearly far enough to keep millions of households out of poverty now or in the future.

Striking for Our Lives

In the absence of adequate government support, people in the UK are fighting back and demanding more. Among the most significant of these grassroots responses is Don’t Pay, a mass non-payment campaign launched in June 2022 that draws its inspiration from the mass resistance to the poll tax in 1990. Don’t Pay is demanding that the government reduce energy bills to an affordable price by 1 October 2022, when they are due to rise — if it fails to do so, and as long as 1 million people have pledged to participate, a bill strike will be called.

Having begun with a chat between a few friends at the pub concerned about and impacted by the cost of living crisis, Don’t Pay is now a huge movement. With so many people frustrated and angry about untenable living costs, support has grown rapidly, with people seemingly eager to take matters into their own hands. In a matter of months, almost 200,000 people have pledged to strike from their energy bills, 70,000 have signed up to help organize, and more than 260 local groups have been formed.

As detractors attempt to undermine Don’t Pay by claiming that non-payment of energy bills is too risky a strategy, campaigners have held strong, developing solid information sources on the facts of non-payment and how to manage any risks involved. The 1 million threshold to strike is key — there is power, as always, in numbers.

The government’s recent announcement of an “energy price guarantee” — which Don’t Pay has labelled a “scam” — has not dampened enthusiasm for the campaign. Indeed, this minor concession is proof that Don’t Pay is having an impact — and for organizers, it is a sign that they must redouble their efforts rather than become complacent. This winter, an average household will still be paying double what they were last year for energy. Meanwhile, energy companies’ 170-billion-pound profits are left untouched. The strike is still very much on.

Whether or not the campaign reaches the threshold of 1 million pledges required to officially call the strike, millions of households will struggle to pay their energy bills and cover other essential living costs in the coming months. In this context, the networks that have emerged around Don’t Pay will be a vital source of community resilience, mutual aid, and solidarity. For example, if energy companies attempt to install extortionate prepayment metres in the homes of people who haven’t paid their energy bills, local groups might prevent this in a similar manner to eviction resistance actions.

Growing the Resistance

Don’t Pay is one of many radical responses to the cost of living crisis. Launched in August 2022, Enough is Enough is a more general campaign, founded by trade union and community organizers, and demanding an end to the cost of living crisis and better living standards for all.

Enough is Enough has gained support rapidly — the campaign website crashed on its first day due to the high visitor numbers. Since then, over 500,000 people have signed up to back the demands for a real pay rise, slashed energy bills, an end to food poverty, decent homes for all, and higher taxes on the rich. Public support for the campaign has come from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ General Secretary Mick Lynch, Labour MPs Zarah Sultana and Ian Byrne, the Communication Workers’ Union, and the tenants’ union ACORN.

To get their demands met, Enough is Enough is holding rallies across the country, taking action against those corporations and super-rich individuals profiteering from people’s poverty, establishing community groups, and supporting trade union picket lines.

Indeed, this summer has seen a wave of strikes in the UK — including postal workers, rubbish collectors, and bus drivers along with many other sectors, and many more expected to follow. Showing solidarity with workers on picket lines was a vital expression of resistance to the cost of living crisis over the summer, by Don’t Pay and Enough is Enough supporters along with many others. In an attempt to coordinate this support, a group of activists created Strike Map, a website designed to track the nation’s strikes and to facilitate solidarity efforts.

As the country contends with a new prime minister and national mourning for the Queen dominates news coverage and interrupts essential public services including healthcare, the full impact of campaigns such as Don’t Pay and Enough is Enough is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: people in the UK know they deserve better than crumbs as the rich keep raking in profits. They are joining forces, and resistance is growing.