Liz Truss’s bosses’ bailout won’t solve the energy crisis – but people power still can
Fifty years ago, John Lennon released a single called ‘Power To The People’. ‘A million workers working for nothing, You better give them what they really own,’ sang the former Beatles front-man.
Written as a call to action in a time ripe for political upheaval, Lennon’s track is an anthem as relevant today as it was in 1971. Amid an energy crisis that is already forcing Scottish pensioners to ride the bus in search of warmth, giving power to the people is the most important thing decision makers can do. In Glasgow, a campaign taking its name from Lennon’s single has set out to do just that – and it’s already making waves.
Power To The People is a grassroots, non-partisan campaign fighting against fuel poverty in Scotland’s largest city. Founded just three months ago, the campaign began by having doorstep conversations with residents in Glasgow’s Southside struggling to pay their bills. These door-knocking sessions not only laid bare the severity of the crisis but made clear what had to be done, helping the campaign settle on its first three demands: an immediate energy price freeze, an end to the late-payment fees charged by the multinationals and a ban on rip-off prepayment meters.
Bringing together academics, researchers, city councillors, former MSPs and climate activists, our campaign transcends the binary divide over independence which has come to dominate Scottish politics by involving organizers closely associated with either side of the debate.
With its three demands in place, the campaign took its fight to Scottish Power’s Glasgow HQ. As one of the ‘big five’ energy retailers, the corporation’s chief executive was paid £1,115,000 ($1,287,000) last year. Iberdrola, Scottish Power’s parent company, - increased its overall profit by 36 per cent this quarter, making £1.7 billion ($2 billion) thanks to what it called a ’good performance in the United Kingdom’. In other words, Scottish Power made billions from forcing thousands to choose between heating and eating.
Hundreds gathered outside Scottish Power’s monolithic glass HQ to protest against gross corporate profiteering at a time of humanitarian crisis. Their message was clear: freeze energy prices, not people. Most importantly, the protest crowd contained faces unrecognizable to even veteran activists. This was a clear demonstration of how a broad-based campaign focusing on an issue which will affect the entire working class can reach beyond ‘the bubble’. In a testament to the impact of well-organized community campaigns, the protest topped the bill of Scotland’s broadcast media that evening and just 48 hours later Scottish Power’s chief executive joined growing calls for an energy price freeze, PTTP’s central demand.
Capitalizing on the momentum generated both by the Scottish Power protest and by the launch of national campaigns like Enough Is Enough, Power To The People held successful and well-attended public meetings to discuss the campaign’s strategic direction with residents from across the city.
On the 26 August, as Ofgem announced the new and unaffordable £3,549 ($4,095) energy price cap, the campaign was ready to respond, holding its second protest in as many weeks outside the Glasgow offices of the UK’s energy regulator Ofgem. Activists hung banners reading from neighbouring buildings, so they could be seen from the heart of Ofgem’s HQ. A crowd of over three hundred people heard speeches from those at the front line of dealing with the energy crisis: striking workers and union general secretaries. The action’s centrepiece involved attendees burning their prospective energy bills in two large dustbins just metres from Ofgem’s door.
Power To The People has been buoyed by the various waves of industrial action taking place across Glasgow. The fight for an energy price freeze and for a fair deal at work are, after all, one and the same. The Scottish trade union movement’s support for the campaign is evidence of that and, hopefully, broader recognition of the need for various groups to come together, fighting as one across the many fronts of crises.
Since the group was founded the prospect of a price freeze has shot up the political agenda, largely because we’re nearing 1 October, when the price hike would come into effect, but also because of action taking place across the country in which we have played an important part.
Whilst the campaign's origins may lie not in strategic intervention but instead in a reaction to an urgent crisis, so far it has played a key role in taking the fight to the profiteers and spotlighting some of the less talked about components of the energy emergency, like the scourge of prepayment meters. Liz Truss’s announcement that the government will limit the average bill to £2,500 show the impact of Power to the People and its sister campaigns nationwide – but it’s clear that when winter comes, tariffs at this level will still force thousands into destitution and death. Truss’s proposals are also set to be bankrolled by the public purse – leaving the massive profits of energy producers unchecked.
During September, the campaign plans to focus on building its base, forming groups rooted in communities across Glasgow to support those unable to pay their bill come the 1 October and to resist disconnection. On the Wyndford estate in Maryhill, north Glasgow, the local residents union forced energy executives into negotiations – and won a price freeze not just for their own estate but for 10,000 customers who get their energy from heat networks.
Our broader campaign recognizes the importance of community organizing in conjunction with overtly political interventions in achieving change.
It’s a template that is slowly but surely being taken up across the UK. Dundee and Liverpool have recently established Power To The People committees similar to Glasgow’s.
John Lennon said that he wrote ‘Power To The People’ for ‘people to sing’. The campaign’s hope is that soon the song will reverberate around the UK, as people refuse to pay for a crisis created not by them but by the market and the wealthy few in whose interest it operates.
Coll McCail is a socialist activist based in Glasgow.
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