Sunday 28 August 2022

Reared Up

The sixth-richest country in the world faces a winter of humanitarian crisis. Unless the government acts now, millions of Britons will be unable to keep their homes warm. Some will die while, as the NHS warns, many more will fall seriously ill. Schools, hospitals and care homes across the country must choose between busting their budgets or freezing. Countless shops and businesses will close, never to open again. More than 70% of pubs are preparing for last orders, while any restaurant, cafe, chippy or kebab shop must now face existential threat, thanks to a quadrupling of their energy bills, surging food prices and a recession that will kill discretionary spending. As economic catastrophes go, this looks far bigger than the 2008 crash. It promises to reshape our everyday lives and social fabric.

That is the meaning of today’s statement from the watchdog Ofgem. The new price cap of £3,549 it has set for household energy bills is almost triple that of last winter, and for many it is simply unaffordable. When it kicks in, at the start of October, 25% of Britons will not be able to pay their fuel bills. They just don’t have the income, according to calculations by Citizens Advice. Crucially, half those people would normally be what the charity calls “financially stable”. In their first immersion into hardship, many will struggle to navigate their entitlements or the system. Some will sink. We are weeks away from creating a new poor. 

Their ranks will keep growing, because even the regulators now accept that “prices could get significantly worse through 2023”. Analysts forecast that the typical household on a dual tariff and direct debit will face annual bills of more than £5,000 come January. And millions will pay far more for their heat and light, such as those on pre-payment meters, or running nurseries or small businesses.

“Unless the government acts now,” I began, but what a joke that is. You and I both know that we have no government. No minister stirred themselves this morning to address a public facing a pivotal moment. Fratboy Boris Johnson spent his summer not tackling this emergency, but at parties and on holiday. The citizens of Slovenia and Greece saw more of our prime minister than we did. I’m unsure which of us got the short straw.

Given plenty of chances to discuss the economic disaster that will define her likely premiership, Liz Truss has offered not ideas but bluff and delusion. There will be no handouts, she has said, while promising just that, in the form of tax cuts, for rich people. Her latest wheeze is to scrap “green levies” from energy bills, a pledge worth a grand total of £11 for each household.

But of course it goes beyond two workshy blondes. In political terms, the energy shock expands and intensifies the same problem we have faced ever since the death of Lehman Brothers in 2008: our immediate crises are far more serious than the people who run the country. Whether in politics, policy or the media, those at the top, nourished on platitudes and drunk on careerism, just cannot handle what stares us in the face.

Having landed us in Brexit, David Cameron whistled his way into lobbying for Greensill Capital. George Osborne, who once urged a “march of the makers”, now troughs it up in the City. The Bank of England turns the screws even as ordinary working people are already in financial agony – and nobody points out that two members of its rate-setting committee hail from one City firm, Goldman Sachs, while none come from the entire trades union movement.

That Koh-i-Noor of Radio 4, the Today programme, has spent the past week diagnosing what ails the British economy. One morning was spent with a private equity investor, the editor of the Economist and a Lib Dem from the failed coalition government. All three bathed in happy consensus, bemoaning the lack of investment and decrying the abundance of red tape. The Today programme has never invited comparable analyses from Mick Lynch or Sharon Graham, of course; it wants only to lambast them over the inconvenience caused by workers sticking up for themselves.

This is a country ruled by groupthink, when the group in question is a bunch of well-raised and nicely suited mediocrities. Organisations mired in groupthink eventually fail, and so it is with the UK. We have a market unable to deliver an essential commodity at a price that people can afford, which is therefore broken. We have a rail network that is effectively carrion feasted on by financial vultures and foreign states. And we have a water industry that is quite literally a shitshow. All of this has been clear for years, as indeed has the cost of living crisis, steadily growing during the past decade of stagnant wages.

Yet no one in mainstream politics or policy seems capable of thinking up any ideas that are not more of the same. The public on the other hand is already doing so. In the largest survey of its kind, a poll this month by Survation shows that two-thirds of Tory voters want energy, water, rail and the postal services taken back into the public sector. Why wouldn’t they? A commuter from Guildford doesn’t cheer at price-gouging on her train. A Tory voter in Bexhill doesn’t want their beaches coated in sewage. And all fret over heating bills. Yet no major party dares mention nationalisation, least of all Keir Starmer’s Labour. Even as hardened ideology breaks against reality, the “sensibles” are playing dumb; the centrists are the ones acting extreme.

I caught a glimpse of the new public mood last week, at the launch rally for Enough is Enough. It was a couple of miles south of Westminster, at a concert hall that normally puts on comedy shows. When I turned up, an hour before kick-off, the queues already blocked the main road. Fifteen hundred people packed out the venue, hundreds more were turned away. The entire event had been pulled together within a week on a shoestring budget. The lectern for the speeches turned up in the back of a van just minutes before the start.

Although Enough is Enough was founded by two small trade unions, it was not a traditional union event. The housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa took his turn onstage, while Dave Ward of the posties’ union, the Communication Workers Union, declared this was the start of a social movement. The Labour MP Zarah Sultana declared, “British politics is a bit shit, isn’t it?” to widespread laughter. Other speakers yoked together issues of pay and working conditions with crap housing and the climate crisis in ways that I’ve never heard from Wes Streeting and his ilk.

Enough is Enough launched two weeks ago, with the goal of signing up 50,000 people; it now has 450,000 on board and plans to get to a million by the end of September. Don’t Pay, which was started by three people in their evenings, has attracted more than 100,000 people pledging to cancel their direct debits. Between them these organisations, as well as trade unions and civil society organisations, are starting to set the terms of the debate on this crisis. A moment that could have been commandeered by Nigel Farage or the extreme right has instead been framed as a class-based conflict in which poor people of all ethnicities get screwed while utility bosses and their shareholders profit.

Top of the bill was Mick Lynch. A few months ago, he was addressing tiny rooms of RMT members; now he packs out concert venues, while still dressing like a dad at a school sports day. Much of that success comes from how skilfully he can toreador dumb TV interviewers; but he is also leading a march straight into unclaimed political territory. He wound up his remarks by describing going on the BBC with a Labour frontbencher who “didn’t even know what public ownership was”. There was the sound of 1,500 people laughing. But he was in earnest. “Keir Starmer has no idea it might appeal to the working class of this country.” Now the hall was filled with applause. I looked across at the bouncer next to me. All night, his expression had been frozen in place. But now he was reared up and clapping like mad.