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Fuel to the fire?

Fuel to the fire?

Will the energy crisis spark a wider revolt?

The craft of being in power is a delicate one. To paraphrase P.T Barnum, you can piss off some of the people all of the time, you can piss off all of the people some of the time, but you can’t piss off all of the people all of the time. Choose your victims carefully and most will shrug, make your injustice affect too many and the population will start sharpening the pitchforks.

The sudden rise in fuel bills might turn out to be this Tory government’s Poll Tax moment. Bills are set to increase by over 50% and that’s just this time round. Add this to huge inflation in the cost of living.  As energy companies record wild profits everyone else in the country is expected to foot the bill. Of course this hits the poorest hardest. There’s no graded system for energy prices, every unit costs the same whether you live in badly insulated rental or you’ve inherited a castle. In fact if you’re on a key meter the unit costs are usually higher. But crucially unlike austerity or universal credit this pinch will be felt on a much broader scale.

The possibilities for a campaign of non-payment and mass community resistance are obvious. Building on existing networks like Acorn, SolFed or the mass of mutual aid groups that sprang up during Covid lockdown, there is the possibility of really taking this fight to the government and corporations. Make every attempt to cut people off for non-payment as difficult as possible. In Greece, during the EU enforced austerity, electricians refused to disconnect and clandestinely reconnected many families who had been cut off for non payment.As the situation in Greece developed it turned among some sections of the population into a general refusal to pay anything.

The movement against the Poll Tax does offer a model for what such a resistance might look like. As it affected everyone, it meant you could talk to anyone about it. “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” summed up the approach as anger at the injustice of years of Tory imposed austerity and inequality spilled over. This was a multi faceted grassroots campaign that was not anchored in any political party. There were demos, newspapers, legal and illegal defences of those targetted for non-payment. There were invaded town halls and fights with the police, and of course as any greybeard anarchist will tell you the whole thing culminated in a massive riot in Trafalgar Square and, eventually, the downfall of Thatcher.

One danger at the moment is the right wing narrative that’s being pushed. That has two main targets, both of which are designed to draw attention from the obvious scam that’s taking place. The first target is that tiny portion of the fuel bill that goes towards alleviating hardship. Nicknamed the ‘green levy’ in the right wing press this is the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) that pays for government insulation programmes for the poorest households. This adds about thirty quid a year to the average fuel bill and would obviously be far better spent on enhancing the lifestyle of Shell executives as soon as they feel like jacking up the unit price.

The second target is to overcome public resistance to fracking and the exploration of new oil and gas fields by claiming that current sky high prices are caused by a genuine shortage of energy rather an artifical scarcity. Unfortunately for this narrative the UK was actually a net exporter of gas in 2021 as corporations free from any social responsibility sold to the highest bidders.

If you see Sid (tell him he’s a wanker)

The current crisis is a legacy of the privatisation wave of the 80s, where publically owned energy companies were floated on the market during the Thatcherite neo-liberal reconstruction of the country. The recent collapse of dozens of energy companies that left the public scrabbling around for a supplier to take them on (and paying a huge premium in tarriffs for the privilege) revealed the whole market to be a rigged casino where the right numbers always came up, until one day they didn’t and the company directors walked away unscathed.

The background to this is the outrageus money generated by companies like Shell, who made £20 billion last year, a pipeline from our wallets to theirs that’s only flowing one way. Energy price hikes are enough to trigger revolts across the world, most recently in Kazakhstan. It’s possible that Rishi Sunak might pull something out of the bag here, there’s already a sop of a two hundred quid rebate being floated but will it be enough? The problem that he faces here is far more difficult than the usual culture war finger pointing the Tories have grown used to. He either appeases the population and takes money from major corporations or he keeps the Tory paymasters happy and risks a revolt.

Our argument has to be simple: protect the poorest, stop people being taken to court and cut off for non-payment, a massive increase in insulation of homes to wean us off our reliance on the energy giants and investment in publically owned renewable energy.

How’s Britain going to keep warm this year? Put on yet another jumper or stand by a burning barricade?

Bill Stickers

Image: the 1990 Poll Tax Riot, by Neil Hester, published under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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