The Long 1980s

Anyone else getting déjà vu? It feels like the 1980s. Not just because we have a bad imitation of Thatcher about to be anointed by the Tory faithful, but the grim statistics of imminent poverty and homelessness and the strident right-wing rhetoric being played out against ordinary people fighting for a decent wage.

New statistics on homelessness in Scotland are just out. Three harsh stats jump out: the number of children in temp accommodation is up by 17% to 8,635 in March from 7,385 in March 2021; the number of people becoming homeless from private rent sector is 15%, it was 11% in 2020–21; and there were 2,129 households rough sleeping during the previous 3 months (which is down). The rise in those becoming homeless from private rented sector is being put down to the lifting of the pandemic ban on evictions.

Landlords can easily evict people and get new tenants or change to short-term letting. There’s no sign of rent controls anytime soon so as other prices rocket and the cost of living spirals people will be more and more vulnerable as they struggle to make the rent each month. This is a tipping point.

There are many more coming down the track.

The Daily Record reports an astonishing figure of four million people in Scotland facing fuel poverty. That’s three-quarters of all households. Fuel poverty is defined as anyone having to spend more than 10% of their income on heating after housing costs. Experts at the University of York published the shocking new figures, but the political response has been muted. Our current PM is on permanent holiday and our incoming one is not someone you would trust with going to the newsagent never mind finding solutions for a national emergency. Truss has previously suggested she is opposed to offering hard-up families any more support. She told one newspaper earlier this month: “I would do things in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts.”

It’s not just in Scotland that fuel poverty is about to hit, hard. A forecast this week from Cornwall Insight predicted a £4,266 average annual energy price by January. This means that more than half of British households, 54%, will be in fuel poverty by October and two-thirds, 66%, by January. Six million households, an astonishing number, will be forced to pay an unprecedented 25% of their income in fuel costs and 4.4 million will be subject to a virtually unaffordable 30%.

This is an astonishing situation. But the solutions put forward are largely hopeless. Labour talk of ‘taxing profits’, ‘freezing energy prices’ — and bringing suppliers into the public sector.

‘Freezing energy prices’ sounds like a good idea but like rent freezes if you are fixing them at an exorbitant rate that’s not so great. ‘Taxing’ giant energy companies is, er, a good idea, but unlikely under an ideologue like Truss.

But a lot of this dialogue assumes the energy crisis to be a transient thing. Offered up are freezes or rebates to get people through to ‘next year’. But the energy crisis is part of the climate crisis, and it’s here to stay. Ecologists have been saying for forty years that we have to create resilient renewable energy systems, that we have to have an energy descent plan and we need to have our supply under public control. These three key demands have been ignored. So here we are.

It’s the same with the water crisis. The boom and bust of droughts and rainfall leading to sewage dumped at sea and in rivers is testimony of the resource wars that many of us have predicted for years. Treat everything as a short-term problem, ignore the evidence before your eyes and privatise and deregulate for profit and our problems become systemic and pile-up and up.

The soft reformist and mild suggestions are now too little too late. As three-quarters of all households descend into fuel poverty, last week the oil and gas giant BP announced quarterly profits of £6.9bn, its highest figure for 14 years.

And people are standing around going: ‘what are we going to do?’

In the face of widespread political inertia, people are taking things into their own hands.

As the RMT’s Mick Lynch said this week: “People are getting poorer every day. They can’t pay their bills, they’re being treated despicably in the workplace. There is a massive response coming.” That response and organisation, perhaps unsurprisingly is emerging outwith the normal political channels. It feels like finally, amid the rubble of a broken politics and a failed political class, people are waking up. ‘Enough is Enough‘ is a new campaign which offers five demands: a real pay rise; slash energy bills; end food poverty; decent homes for all; tax the rich.

The leftwing journalist Rachel Shabi reported from the campaign’s launch in London. She said: “Thinking about the packed out Enough is Enough rally last night, the giant queues around the building, the energy and hope in the room and how much raw need there is for a social movement like this amidst our unforgivably broken politics.”

“Enough is Enough has tapped into a desperate appetite and need for collectivist politics, amidst a social and economic crisis point our main political parties seem incapable of responding to.”

Don’t Pay UK is another new campaign. It’s plan? “It’s simple: we are demanding a reduction of energy bills to an affordable level. Our leverage is that we will gather a million people to pledge not to pay if the government goes ahead with another massive hike on October 1st.
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Mass non-payment is not a new idea, it happened in the UK in the late 80s and 90s, when more than 17 million people refused to pay the Poll Tax — helping bring down the government and reversing its harshest measures. Even if a fraction of those of us who are paying by direct debit stop our payments, it will be enough to put energy companies in serious trouble, and they know this. We want to bring them to the table and force them to end this crisis.”

There are problems with these responses. How does the Don’t Pay UK campaign deal with people on pre-paid meters, and will the Sheriff Officers come knocking? The Poll Tax campaign worked because of mass solidarity and action to resist (and ultimately ended up in Tommy Sheridan’s legislation at Holyrood for the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act 2001). While Enough is Enough has all the right demands and massive support, it does feel like another Momentum moment. If these groups can mobilise large numbers of people — and given the level of the crisis you’d imagine that would be possible — maybe we can affect change. But this resistance needs to be at scale and on the streets, and operate beyond or above party politics.

As the political temperature rises the rhetoric from the right is dramatically escalating. Grant Shapps and Liz Truss are threatening authoritarian legislation against trade union activity.

This week Truss unveiled plans for a ‘radical shake-up of labour laws’. Her plan includes introducing minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure to keep trains, buses and other services running. New laws would be introduced in parliament within a month of taking office if her leadership campaign is successful. She will raise ballot thresholds to make it harder for strike action to take place across all sectors. She’s not just a Thatcher cosplay act.

But if the rhetoric from Truss and Shapps on the unions is like an 80s throwback, so too is the rhetoric on the Union. In an extraordinary intervention this week the architect of the magnificent Brexit project, David Frost, doubled-down on the new normal of muscular unionism. The days of love-bombing are long-gone. In an unhinged piece in the Telegraph (‘The SNP has to be defeated, not appeased‘) he wrote: “The SNP has to be defeated, not appeased. It would be a humiliation if the UK were to be broken up by the Nationalists. It would also be immoral.”

Frost claimed: “…the UK is a unitary state, not a federation or a confederation. Both the 1707 and 1801 Acts of Union fused the participants into one state in which all were equal, first “Great Britain”, then the “United Kingdom”, with one sovereign legal personality and one Parliament and government.

For all the noise, that is still the case. The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament. SNP activists hate it when you remind them of this. All the more need to do so.”

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This is extraordinary language even for a Tory.

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Frost then claimed a sort of compulsory Britishness arguing: “Moreover, if you are a citizen of that unitary state, you are British. The SNP’s nationalist allies in Northern Ireland try to blur this, too. Sky News’s Ireland correspondent Stephen Murphy stepped into this confusion this week when he criticised Rishi Sunak for calling his audience at the Belfast hustings “Britons”.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly he betrays a very slight knowledge of Scottish (or Irish) culture and politics, but this is new language. Finally, and most sinister he wrote: “We need to act. The devolution settlement is not written in stone. It has evolved — all in one direction — since 1999. It can evolve back, too.”

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This is the first time I have heard a senior Conservative outwardly and openly attack the very concept of devolution. We are in new territory.

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What has provoked this new language? They’re completely desperate. They’re complicit in creating a whole series of social and ecological nightmares they have no idea what to do about. They are tooled only with an ideology that has created the very shambles we see all around us. As one writer wrote this week: “The unavoidable truth is that the United Kingdom is in such a fragile, frayed state that it can no longer keep its people warm or adequately feed them.”

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Feeling Better Together?

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