An account and analysis of the UK Don't Pay campaign against energy cost increases, with its strengths, weaknesses, and lessons we can learn from the experience, by Angry Workers of the World.
There were moments when the early months of Don’t Pay were exhilarating to be a part of. Local groups were proliferating everywhere. Social media channels exploding. Heaving crowds at festivals and train stations not only knew about the campaign but wanted stacks of the flyers to share for themselves. Early high-profile media coverage catapulted the campaign forward and within two months almost 100,000 people had pledged to take part. Nobody knew where it was going to end. After the misery of the pandemic and years of crushing passivity, the feeling that we might finally be about to break through was intoxicating. Six months later it feels as if the campaign has all but evaporated. What follows is an initial attempt to summarise what happened here and share some reflections on the experience so far. For more context on the current wave of protest in Britain see our article on the strikes, or the general background to the current moment.
As of September 2022 the UK had the highest rate of energy price inflation among the G7 nations (49.4%), well over twice that of Canada (14%), Japan (16.8%), France (18.6%), or the United States (19.8%). The UK has been hit particularly hard by cost of energy increases because of a combination of its relatively high dependency on gas (to which the domestic price of all other energy is pegged), pervasive underinvestment, the recent decommissioning of critical gas storage infrastructure, notoriously poorly insulated housing, and a dysfunctional ‘price cap’ in the domestic energy market. The price cap was initially introduced to prevent energy companies from overcharging customers who didn’t shop around regularly for better deals. It worked by imposing a limit on how much companies could charge per unit of gas and electricity, and limiting profit to a 1.9% margin. While this suppressed one overt form of profit-gouging (the ‘loyalty penalty’ enacted against passive customers), it left the energy market acutely exposed to aggressive increases in world market gas prices under the pandemic and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Until August this year, the price cap could only be adjusted twice annually by the UK energy regulator Ofcom, in April and October. This meant that when wholesale gas prices skyrocketed in 2021 energy suppliers were unable to rapidly adjust their retail prices in line with the cost increases and half of the UK’s energy suppliers collapsed within the space of a few months. The cost of these failures was then passed on to all energy consumers through an increased ‘standing charge’ included in all bills, which has added over £350 a year on top of the increased prices for energy itself, and is set to rise further as the costs of more company failures are gradually integrated.
Don’t Pay UK
The campaign was launched after the cost of energy increased by more than half following the April 2022 price cap adjustment. The idea of a bill strike was in the air and a small group in London, many of them friends who had continued to organise together since the 2010 student movement, established an initial strategy and digital and organisational infrastructure. The campaign would aim to secure 1 million non-payment pledges before the next price increase on October 1st 2022, at which point the strikers would cancel their direct debits to their energy suppliers until three demands had been met: a reversal of the price cap to its pre-April 2021 level; an end to the enforcement of pre-payment meters (1); and a ‘social energy tariff’ for people on lower incomes and ‘community assets’ (pubs, schools, community centres, etc.). The hope was that the government would be forced to intervene to save any more suppliers from collapse, and that at that scale the normal debt-recovery mechanisms for consumers would become dysfunctional. In the UK various safeguards protect direct debit customers from disconnection until various prior measures have been exhausted. In theory, this would allow strikers to withhold payment for up to several months before more serious penalties would apply.
Gradually local postcode groups were established to spread support for the strike and were encouraged to distribute leaflets and stickers, doorknock their neighbourhoods, and organise stalls and events. The formation of these groups relied on volunteers creating a Whatsapp group for their postcode area, which would then be forwarded on to any other volunteers who registered there. Given the limited capacity of the central organising group, the decision was made early on that the postcode groups would be autonomous and decentralised. On one level this gave the groups full freedom of action to develop tactics suited to their specific circumstances (although without any kind of constitution or conditions of federation the absolute limits of this freedom were never clear). On another level, in practice this has led to many postcode areas remaining fragmented and mutually isolated. For a long time the few regional coordinations that did emerge (in the form of larger Whatsapp groups aggregating members from a broader spread of postcodes) did so on the basis of pre-existing friendships or connections, leaving their national distribution extremely uneven. Without such coordinating structures tactical freedom came at the cost of democratic accountability, and necessary strategic decisions remained by default in the hands of the central organising collective. Although over time feedback mechanisms were gradually developed to convey views and experiences from postcode groups to the core, this arrangement was one which remained fairly loose.
‘This is existential’
Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister less than one month into the campaign effectively incapacitated the government for the whole of the summer. The timing could hardly have been better. Not only was the government unable to make any substantive policy announcements during the campaign’s crucial early months of growth, but he hung on long enough to completely delegitimise the government and set the stage for a particularly damaging power struggle between his potential replacements, reinforcing the public perception that with the politicians busy fighting among themselves we were now on our own and would be forced to rely on ourselves.
By early September Don’t Pay had reached almost 170,000 pledges, but Liz Truss’ short-lived assumption of power finally put the government back in the picture. She quickly announced an ‘Energy Price Guarantee’ (EPG) scheme, replacing the regulator Ofgem’s price cap with a new limit on standing charges and unit costs for gas and electricity. The EPG (combined with an additional government subsidy) would hold average domestic energy bills at around £2500 for the next two years (still a 96% increase on the previous year), and an additional scheme was introduced to hold down prices for businesses. Estimates varied, but the schemes were predicted to cost somewhere in the range of £140 billion. This caused some initial nervousness on the international markets but the measures at this stage were generally accepted.
Coming off the back of a summer of exponential growth, Don’t Pay quickly claimed the EPG as a concession to the campaign and pushed forward with the strike. Whether it could really be attributed to the campaign or not, the EPG clearly emboldened many organisers and established a sense that they had the government on the run. This was further reinforced a month later when Open Democracy published lobbying documents in which the energy supplier E.ON claimed that the issue of non-payment was “existential” for the energy sector and calculated that a payment strike of 1 million customers would cost the energy sector £265 million per month, of which E.ON would shoulder £45 million alone. The writer Keir Milburn concluded from this, in an article that was widely circulated within the campaign, that “[b]y forming an organised expression of a widely felt sentiment, Don’t Pay had brought the privatised energy supply market to the brink of collapse. There is little doubt that this incredible leverage forced the government’s hand and produced a much larger and more universal price cap than it would have freely chosen.”
If E.ON’s estimates are to be believed, based on their UK retail earnings from the first 6 months of the year 1 million strikers could have more than eliminated their pre-tax profits month after month. At the same time, the possibility of a strike is not quite the same as having already “brought the privatised energy supply market to the brink of collapse”, and you could also question the article’s second claim, that Don’t Pay’s “incredible leverage forced the government’s hand and produced a much larger and more universal price cap than it would have freely chosen”. It’s not that Don’t Pay didn’t play any role in the adoption of the EPG, but there were several other significant factors which influenced its size and universality. First, developing a well-targeted scheme would have taken time and administrative capacity that were well beyond the government’s existing means (2); second, the government was relying on a blanket price cap to reduce inflation, which could enable interest rate reductions and translate into lower government borrowing costs; third, the two year duration of the scheme was designed to protect the electorate from more aggressive price increases until after the next general election; and fourth, the energy industry (e.g. E.ON, Scottish Power, Energy UK) were also lobbying the government hard for generous handouts. While the belief that Don’t Pay caused the EPG redoubled the confidence and determination of many of the campaign’s activists, it also led to what felt even at the time like a pretty disconcerting misassessment of the campaign’s actual strength. God knows we need to feel actually capable of changing things (more on which below), but the further our sense of our own strength drifts from the actual balance of forces, the greater the risk of tactical missteps and disillusionment further down the line.
At any rate, at the same time as the EPG was pushing some in the campaign forwards, others faded away. Despite the EPG leaving bills twice as high in October as they had been in the year before, it was enough to mitigate the absolute, catastrophic desperation felt by many, and many of the campaign’s less activist participants disappeared around this time. On a purely anecdotal level, many of us feel that in their day-to-day experience the campaign never again recovered the momentum that it had had up until this point. On an objective level it remains hard to quantify these shifts though, because, since the campaign website offers no means to ‘unpledge’; the numbers online only ever increase with no indication of how many people have changed their minds or withdrawn.
It should also be said that slowing momentum at this point wasn’t only due to the government’s intervention. By mid-September the pledges had still not breached 190,000 and it was increasingly obvious that the target of 1 million would not be reached by October 1st. After having spent the summer carried along by the wind in our sails, the realisation that there would be no strike in October left many of us feeling suddenly adrift. A wave of disorientation fell over a large part of the campaign, exacerbated by local fragmentation on one side and the centralisation of the national structure on the other. Without clearly established guidelines for decision making or discussion, the strategic conversations that did happen remained disjointed and opaque, and most participants simply watched the social media channels restlessly, waiting to be told whatever had been determined as the next move. Although many initially missed it, this came on the 24th of September when the central organising group subtly changed the campaign’s target from October 1st to whenever a million pledges were reached. The 1st came and passed, marked by some protests and street stalls, but nothing out of the ordinary.
From this point on Don’t Pay appeared to lose what level of mass traction it had attained and deflated into the isolation of a conventional activist campaign. In a last ditch attempt at revival, on October 26th, with around 230,000 nominal pledges, the campaign switched target again, this time declaring a strike for December 1st irrespective of how many people pledged to participate. On one level this decision was motivated by an attempt to reverse a fatal loss of momentum, but on another reflected the persistence of an inflated perception of strength. This time around however the announcement received no real response from the media, government, or energy companies, and even many of the more dedicated activists lost morale and faded away. Surviving groups tended to reorient themselves away from the strike and towards protest actions or ‘mutual aid’, however this has tended to be small in scale and with limited reach. In theory the strike began on December 1st as planned, although nobody seems to know how many are participating, and the Don’t Pay’s social media channels have fallen for the most part silent. Irrespective of the campaign, the energy regulator Ofgem calculate that, by July-September, almost 2.3 million electricity accounts and almost 1.9 million gas accounts had already fallen into arrears, and this before the price increases of October and December. Far from rendering enforcement mechanisms dysfunctional, non-payment on this scale has been met with industrial efficiency: more than 320,000 people have been forced onto prepayment meters so far this year, up from just under 50,000 in 2021. One court in the north of England took just 3 minutes to approve warrants for 496 installations. With the broader campaign having disintegrated in the meantime, these installations have gone practically unopposed. For the time being at least, it seems the moment has passed.
Spontaneity and Recomposition
Don’t Pay was heavily influenced by the campaign against the poll tax in the UK at the end of the 1980s, as well as the ‘self-reduction’ of energy, housing, transport and entertainment prices by workers in Italy in the 1970s. In both of these examples, efforts to resist a universal deterioration of living standards (a flat rate of tax in the UK, inflation in Italy) spread like wildfire through working class neighbourhoods without the direction (or even support) of mainstream labour organisations, giving the movement of the class an appearance of spontaneity. (3) The poll tax movement was deeply embedded in council estates and pushed forward by, by today’s standards, a relatively experienced and combative working class. Although the Thatcher years are associated with the defeat of the labour movement, it’s easy to forget that these battles were still ongoing and the fatalism and resignation of later years were not yet so widespread. Back in the early ‘80s Thatcher wasn’t even expected to survive her first term. The working class at this time was battle hardened by the conflicts of the ‘70s and many workers had direct experience of organised struggle, from the basic practicalities of how to run meetings through to decision-making procedures on local, regional or national scales. For all the limitations of the organisational forms of this period, it is still striking that, in contrast to Don’t Pay’s fragmentary postcode groups, the movement against the poll tax was able to form stable branches with relatively clear and inclusive decision-making processes, a delegated division of labour, and coordinating structures on multiple scales, all in a relatively short period of time (and without the use of the internet!). In Italy in the 1970s the general level of organisation and militancy was even higher, enabling the self-reduction of prices to go far beyond anything else in recent history: workers’ collectives in the energy sector would simply reconnect households disconnected for collective non-payment; construction workers would open up newly constructed luxury flats to working class families for occupation; crowds of young workers would tear down fences and gates at cinemas or festivals and make art and music free for the working class. For brief moments proletarian neighbourhoods became no-go areas for bailiffs and the police.
In this sense, although the rapid uptake and diffusion of these struggles may have given them an appearance of spontaneity, specific social, political, and technical factors always condition the scope for struggles to spread. Italian militants active in the self-reduction struggles of the ‘70s referred to these social, political and technical factors as the elements of ‘class composition’, that is, the way the working class is shaped by, and shapes itself in response to, capitalist society. In the UK we’re currently experiencing the kind of limits 30 years of class re-composition has imposed on our attempts to re-apply tactics derived from the past. Although already undergoing substantial changes, the working class of the 1970s and ‘80s was a relatively more cohesive entity than it is today. Many more people lived together in large estates, knew and socialised with their neighbours, worked in the same (often large) workplaces, and had children at the same schools. At the same time, even in the attenuated form of post-war social democracy, ‘socialism’ was a mainstream political perspective to which millions of people adhered and militant groups were more numerous and influential than they have been at any time since. The point is not to cultivate nostalgia for these years (not least because of exclusionary restrictions to which this ‘class unity’ was often subject, or the social conservatism which presented its own kind of limit), but to recognise that these conditions, however problematic and limited, and the social bonds, perspectives, and experiences they provided, made it possible for the poll tax unions and self-reductions to spread and consolidate themselves organisationally in a way that Don’t Pay has not, despite its widespread support.
Over the last 30 years the working class in the UK has been politically ‘decomposed’. Its organisations have been incapacitated or destroyed, tactics and experiences lost, and its political outlook narrowly delimited. Struggles can only mature to the extent that experience can be preserved and transmitted through sustained cycles of struggle, and in the UK that process has been violently interrupted. For all their faults, the trade unions and welfare state of the post-war period served to institutionalise the aspirations of the working class and maintain a baseline of not only basic social provision, but also the expectation that living standards should improve. The almost total destruction of these institutions has not freed proletarians to engage in wild and spontaneous struggles but instead broken our collective confidence and brutally contained our most basic expectations. For most people, the denial of their needs does not provoke outrage and militancy but reflects one more dismal confirmation that they can expect nothing else from this life. This has occurred alongside fundamental changes in how we live and work that have left many of us more socially isolated than at any time before.
It is exactly this condition which Don’t Pay has aimed to confront, and in a sense its greatest strengths have also reflected its most fundamental limits. After years of submission and resignation, and the bitter divisions of Brexit, politics and the ‘culture wars’, the campaign’s founders set out to confront ‘the problem of composition’ outlined above. Like the militants active in the self-reduction campaigns, Don’t Pay hoped to use struggles over concrete, everyday proletarian needs as a cement to recompose a more unified working class. This was not only about the fulfilment of a specific demand (or demands) but the composition of class unity and the reconstruction of a social aspiration of universal provision. From the outset they struggled to build a ‘non-aligned, non-political’ platform that could draw in support from as much of society as possible, which in practice entailed distancing themselves from the aesthetics and organisations of the far-left. The centrality of universal needs, the decentralisation of groups, and the ‘non-aligned’ platform ensured that on a formal level no one would be excluded and everyone could participate however they saw fit, establishing in theory the potential for a broad based unity and political recomposition. In practice, however, the campaign struggled to overcome the problem of social fragmentation and its formal unity remained practically weak.
Unlike the global occupation movements of 2011, which tended to re-encounter their disavowed differences through open conflicts or divisions in public squares, Don’t Pay’s cleavages tended to reassert themselves in another form: the disappearance of the overworked. To begin with, a large part of the working class was already excluded from full participation in the campaign by their use of prepayment meters. By the start of this year it’s estimated that about one in five residential energy customers were using them, the composition of which will be almost exclusively proletarian. Because customers on pre-payment meters cannot withhold payment without cutting off their own access to gas and electricity, there was no way for them to participate directly in the strike. As a result, local groups would often avoid campaigning in poorer, predominantly migrant working class neighbourhoods, on the not unreasonable assumption that people in those districts wouldn’t have direct debits to cancel. As a result, a demographic tendency towards precarious professionals was established and reinforced. This was then combined with an extremely heavy reliance on the Whatsapp groups and Zoom meetings to communicate. Despite the encouragement of the central organisers to hold in-person events, most groups seem to have organised almost exclusively online. At the same time that this left most members of the groups disconnected from one another, and severely inhibited the kind of warmth and trust that is so crucial for organising together, it also skewed the groups in favour of those who could keep up with a constant barrage of messages, sometimes at all hours of the day and night (or for those Whatsapp groups that immediately fell dead, had the time, energy and commitment to drive a group forward by themselves).
If occupations directly implicate the reproduction of daily life within the organisational forms of a movement (along with the unavoidable confrontation with the gendered division of labour that that entails), with Don’t Pay, via the relative anonymity of instant messaging, private life remained private. Although the campaign addressed the social and gendered division of labour in statements, guides and speeches, on a day-to-day level those working long hours in exhausting jobs, and those with demanding caregiving responsibilities – that is, a massive part of the working class – for the most part just couldn’t make it work. This problem is obviously not reducible to the issues thrown up by organising online. If anything, in terms of time alone, efficient work online could be much less demanding than in-person meetings, as well as including people who’d find the latter inaccessible for various other reasons. The issue is more that to the extent that the postcode groups organised on the internet alone, participants largely remained strangers to one another, and Whatsapp groups provided a limited means to identify, let alone address, barriers to participation in practice.(4)
Tiktoks and Tactics
The campaign thus hit up against a contradiction. On one hand there was an aim to overcome social fragmentation and disempowerment, and for that reason everyone was to be included and left to organise however they thought best. On the other, the inability of the core group to offer more active guidance and support left only the most experienced, confident, time-rich, or exceptionally dedicated able to fully participate. At a certain point this set a limit to the campaign’s growth, and so far it has been unable to innovate some means of restoration and expansion.
The question of how to coordinate its activity is one that all campaigns have to confront, and Don’t Pay was forced to address this on the fly in a very short timeframe. To give a sense of the scale of the challenge involved, something like 75,000 people signed up as volunteers for Don’t Pay from over 1,000 villages, towns and cities, of which around 8,000 joined one of the 700 Whatsapp postcode groups. Don’t Pay’s ‘non-aligned’ strategy required building something from out of thin air, so as not to compromise the campaign through association with some existing organisation or political tendency. At the same time that this provided a necessary independence, it also meant that the campaign was unanchored from any existing framework of coordination or collective decision making. Faced with the task of building a new national movement almost overnight, Don’t Pay’s founders, not unreasonably, concluded that they did not have the means to build a fully integrated, democratic national organisation in the roughly five month timeframe initially outlined for the campaign. By sidestepping the time consuming and politically divisive work of building integrated organisational structures and telling autonomous local groups to just get on with it, Don’t Pay did enable a rapid burst of initial growth. However it proved to be unsustainable.
At a time when demonstrators in Chile can learn to extinguish tear gas by watching TikToks from Hong Kong, it’s clear that developments in communication technology have created unprecedented means for movements to share perspectives and tactics. At the same time as the credibility of traditional workers’ organisations collapsed, these new technologies have enabled protesters to coordinate and extend disruptive activity without relying on formal organisations. But it is one thing to share a tactic, and another thing entirely for people to have the confidence and means to follow through on it in practice. Beyond this, there is a crucial difference between spreading disruptive activity and building the durable forms of social coordination that would be needed to thoroughly transform social life. Don’t Pay successfully spread the idea of a tactic (non-payment), but without a firm organisational grounding we were unable to really root that ‘tactic’ in practice far beyond those of us who had already lost any other choice.
Smashing the Glass Floor
Even at its peak, the ‘official’ discourse of Don’t Pay was one that remained limited to ‘fair distribution’ and ‘governmental responsibility’. On one level this reflects the modesty of the campaign. This was never a revolutionary project and the perspective had always been one of accepting political moderation in exchange for the prospect of building class confidence in self-organised means of struggle. The aim was to politicise everyday needs and identify concrete enemies, and use a ‘win’ on this terrain to build a stronger foundation for future struggles. It was hoped that the conscious limitation of demands to the sphere of distribution would produce something more achievable and less divisive.
At the same time, this limitation was also one that was simultaneously imposed by the circumstances. Despite taking place during the biggest strike wave since the end of the 1980s, Don’t Pay never managed a full breakthrough into the sphere of production. To start with, unions have been generally hostile to the campaign. Branch-level RMT support for Don’t Pay was sunk at a national level and the socialist Enough is Enough campaign have consistently stonewalled any attempts to coordinate activity. Even if the full participation of official union structures would have inevitably led to conflicts, their refusal to concede any legitimacy whatsoever to the campaign starved it of oxygen and perpetuated divisions within working class resistance to inflation. On a rank and file level workers on pickets almost always received the campaign positively, but at no point was this level of verbal support ever transcended into concrete, coordinated action. The workplace strikes and the payment strike ran alongside each other but without ever overcoming their mutual separation.
If we ever want to move beyond asking our class enemies to fulfil our needs on our behalf and actually enforce our needs for ourselves, our basic physical needs as much as fun and rest and creativity, we have to smash the glass floor (5) separating struggles inside and outside the workplace. Politicians and executives don’t heat and power our homes, workers do, and if these workers had the confidence and determination to carry through the struggle against energy price inflation there’d no longer be any question of begging for scraps. These workers run the gas and electricity network, manage accounts, process arrears, manufacture and install prepayment meters. No one is better positioned to make the price increases completely unworkable. And in the slightly longer term we stand exactly no chance of stopping climate catastrophe if the energy system remains in private hands and bound by the laws of profitability. In spite of all the obstacles thrown up by the social, technical and political recomposition of the working class, there remains no other way out: building links between social and workplace struggles, seizing control of the means of production, and repurposing them for direct social use.
Clearly nobody expects anything like this to occur overnight, and this perspective doesn’t entail leading with maximalist slogans about the insurrectionary seizure of power. What it does entail is recognising the indispensability of these links and prioritising some first concrete steps towards practical cooperation – working together with installation technicians to block prepayment meters, for example. Stronger and more organised workers have a responsibility to look beyond their own immediate sectional issues and fight to address wider class issues. We can take inspiration from the Glaswegian dockers who waged illegal strikes during World War One to enforce rent controls, or the GKN factory collective currently struggling against precarity and environmental ‘noxiousness’ in Italy. The relationship between technical, social and political class composition is never mechanical and the divisions of a fragmented society are not impossible to overcome.
Although we’ve focused a lot of this analysis on limitations that Don’t Pay confronted, we want to make clear that this doesn’t mean we somehow reject or dismiss the campaign. All struggles hit limits. That’s part of their nature, and doesn’t in any way signify some kind of essential failure. The point is that these limits must be consciously identified and some means identified for attempting to overcome them, in order to confront the inevitable next set of limits, and so on and so on. To be honest, given the existing state of affairs it’s pretty impressive that Don’t Pay made it as far as it did, and it used its brief moment in the sun to make a start on some of the most urgent and necessary tasks of our moment: breaking through social isolation and the perception of individual failure; politicising everyday needs and their relation to concrete opponents; legitimising self-organised means of struggle; and taking some very first steps towards rebuilding aspirations of universal social provision. As the current cycle of struggle continues through the winter and into the spring, the challenge now is to draw and apply the lessons of Don’t Pay on the fly.
(1) Prepayment meters are a kind of domestic energy meter that require consumers to pay in advance before using gas or electricity. In the UK most consumers pay their providers by direct debit, but if they fall into energy arrears suppliers can secure court warrants to have prepayment meters forcibly installed. This allows energy companies to circumvent legal protections preventing them from disconnecting customers, since with prepayment meters anybody who can’t afford to pay is responsible for their own ‘self-disconnection’ – and the companies can therefore wash their hands of the situation.
(2) This has remained the case, and accounts for the reluctant extension of the EPG under the new Sunak/Hunt government. The Financial Times reported that developing a suitable database would probably take between 6 and 18 months.
(3) Spontaneity in the sense that large parts of the class enthusiastically embraced these campaigns on their own initiative, as opposed to doing so through obedience to the directions of an authority. Spontaneity shouldn’t be counterposed here to ‘organisation’ since all coordinated social activity is ‘organised’ in some sense. The point here is that workers spontaneously converged on these specific tactics and forms of organisation.
(4) The heavy reliance on Whatsapp and Zoom can be seen at least in part as a hangover from the lockdowns, not least because many of Don’t Pay’s more active participants had gained formative organising experience in the pandemic’s anonymous mutual aid groups. Whereas under the lockdown online group chats provided a crucial means to preserve social connections that were otherwise foreclosed, this time round they fell well short of what was required to overcome social fragmentation and embed the campaign in society at large. These prior experiences might also explain the tendency for many groups to revert to mutual aid and charity work when the broader campaign began to lose its sense of direction.
(5) By using this expression it will come as no surprise to some that we don’t therefore endorse Theorie Communiste’s analysis of the Greek riots, but, credit where credit’s due, it’s an evocative way to mark that separation.