ourEconomy: Opinion

Don’t Pay UK has the right idea – but it’s not enough

No one ever won rights by asking nicely. But refusing to pay bills has risks that need to be mitigated

Severia Bel
1 September 2022, 10.31am

Protesters outside Ofgem’s offices in Glasgow, 6 August 2022

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK’s new prime minister is due to be announced on 5 September, and rumours have it that an emergency budget will be catapulted out weeks later. I’m sure undergraduate essays are usually more thought-through than that, never mind solutions to the deepening cost of living crisis the country is facing.

In this context, it’s really no surprise that grassroots responses are strengthening across the country. We’re seeing the highest rate of industrial disputes for half a decade, as workers from numerous industries, including train drivers, university lecturers and criminal barristers, go on strike. We’re also seeing newly formed campaign groups such as Enough Is Enough and Don’t Pay UK winning public sympathy.

While the former group is aiming to boost public support for industrial action and may be building ground for a general strike, the latter is organising around the unaffordability of energy prices.

In the UK, unlike in many other European countries, energy cost increases have been passed on directly to the consumer. In response, Don’t Pay’s campaign ask is simple: pledge not to pay your energy bill and, if a million other people sign up by 1 October (when the new energy price cap comes into force) and the government still hasn’t taken action, cancel your direct debit.

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Don’t Pay has quoted the mass protests of the late 1980s and early 1990s against the poll tax – the widely hated predecessor of council tax – as inspiration for its campaign.

The effectiveness of these campaigns rests on them being able to leverage power. The currency of that power is the threat of chaos and lost profits. Striking workers bring bosses to the negotiating table because they make that threat real. Without this ability to bargain, campaigners would have little choice than just to ask politely for us not to go cold and hungry this winter – pretty please?

Campaigning won’t succeed if activists are seen as outside of communities, swooping in to impose rather than support

But those taking action are taking a personal risk. Don’t Pay, in particular, has been criticised for being irresponsible. While it’s been said that it’s unlikely for people’s energy to be cut off because of non-payment, cancelling your direct debit could affect your credit score. Energy companies also have the power to pass debts on to debt collectors and move those in arrears on to prepayment meters, which are more expensive. These consequences would be worse for those who are already struggling and could disproportionately affect underprivileged people.

Either way, it’s the poorest in society who will suffer the most. This is what makes the current crisis so unjust. Thatcher’s proposed poll tax was wildly unpopular because of the unfairness of everyone having to pay a flat rate. It meant that poor families would have to pay the same as rich families. The idea that a dustman should have to pay the same as a duke enraged the public.

Don’t Pay is harnessing this same sentiment. Why should struggling families bear the consequences of an energy shortage, while fat-cat energy company bosses relax in their toasty mansions? A record number of households were already in energy bill arrears in the first quarter of the year.

Many will be facing the reality that, whether they want to or not, they can’t pay. Forced into risky and impossible choices, people have few options left but to take drastic action. Many will ask themselves what difference a damaged credit rating will make when the soaring cost of living means that saving up for anything is a pipe dream anyway. After more than a decade of stagnating living conditions, many will feel they have little to lose.

In this context, the Don’t Pay campaign’s strength is that it shows those struggling that there is an alternative to these injustices. Just as the poll tax strikes did, Don’t Pay is opening up the possibility that people can simply say “no” and refuse to bear an unfair burden. New polling suggests that a potential 1.7 million households have decided, or are likely to decide, to cancel their direct debits.

Community links

Mass civil disobedience can bring injustice to its knees. But the often hostile and destructive response to such protests can bring those who resist to their knees too.

Even if Don’t Pay’s strategy rests on the threat of non-payment, for a bluff to work your opponent must believe you. If energy companies call the campaign’s bluff, refuse to act and use coercive methods to collect bills, people will need legal advice and financial support. They’ll need members of their community to step in.

During the poll tax protests, strikers were faced with the very real risks of their property being commandeered by bailiffs. Some faced court hearings and even prison time, but community groups stood by each other in resistance. Hundreds of protesters would gather at the homes of those awaiting bailiffs. Strikers would accompany each other to court as ‘McKenzie friends’, providing citizen support during hearings and tactically prolonging them to overwhelm magistrates.

Solidarity support networks will be crucial for Don’t Pay too. Campaigning won’t succeed if activists are seen as outside of communities, swooping in to impose rather than support – but it already seems that Don’t Pay is embedding itself in communities. Many of those speaking out in the media say this is the first time they’ve been involved in direct action, echoing sentiments similar to those of poll tax protesters.

During the pandemic, we saw a rise in the number of local mutual aid groups, created to fill the gaps in the official response. Four in ten such groups are still active, and Don’t Pay organisers would do well to bring them on side, ensuring pledgers have community support if the worst were to happen.

A staggering 31,000 people have signed up as community activists with Don’t Pay (as of 11 August), meaning the potential people power is there. They can build trust by helping with whatever is necessary, whether that’s packaging food parcels or collecting money for strike funds.

A nationally coordinated network of citizens’ advisers – with knowledge of how to negotiate with service providers and how to secure debt consolidation and write-offs – would be a powerful resource. It would ensure people weren’t left alone with the consequences of non-payment and had somewhere to turn to for savvy advice based on their individual situations, all with the collective goal in mind.

Community support like this can increase resilience when times are hard. It would also mean people were more willing to take on the risks that come with the resistance we desperately need.

Although Don’t Pay has set itself a steep target and a tight deadline, in many ways it has already won. In our unpredictable political reality, the real prize to win is public opinion. By asking people to take a simple action, Don’t Pay is revealing the deep rot at the heart of our energy system and showing that what we’re living through isn’t inevitable. Polling suggests that 70% of the public are already aware of the campaign.

The true test will come later and the movement will need to keep up momentum, rooting itself firmly in local communities. After all, it took the demise of Thatcher’s government and many years of persistent and coordinated resistance for the poll tax to be finally scrapped. The lesson here for Don’t Pay is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. With enough of a shift in public sentiment over coming years, the switch might finally be flipped on energy injustice.

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