My nearest and dearest will attest that, since the spring when the warnings started sounding, I’d been ranting about the need for us to use our ultimate weapon against the big energy companies and refuse to pay their exorbitant bills. I’d already informed one of our suppliers, Shell (profits last year $19.3bn, up from $4.8bn the year before), that I didn’t accept their arbitrary increase to our direct debit and reduced it to what I considered a more reasonable level. But I knew this was a rather futile, individual gesture and that unless there was a mass campaign of non-payment, the Big Energy price-fixing cartel would get away with their outrageous profiteering – and then Don’t Pay UK came along!
About six weeks ago, my partner found one of their leaflets on the pavement. She brought it home and I emailed them to find out more. I was a little sceptical, but was pleased to receive a quick, friendly reply inviting me to meet some local people who were getting involved and help stuff envelopes with some of the 300,000 “Don’t Pay” leaflets being sent to people all over the country.
I went along. I was immediately conscious of being the oldest person in the room, but I’m getting used to that – and when it comes to political movements, I’d much rather be the oldest than the youngest! Partly related, there were some generational etiquette differences to negotiate, but although I still don’t feel entirely comfortable announcing my preferred pronoun(s), my very wise, 12-year old granddaughter has told me I need to get over it – and she’s right.
I’ve seen quite a bit of comment about Don’t Pay being a shadowy conspiracy (sadly, some of it laced with anti-Semitism). Mostly, this seems to come from people who haven’t actually been involved, or taken the time to talk to people who are. Some of it, inevitably, is being engineered by the establishment media and their big business paymasters who are terrified of what the movement represents.
A lot of the suspicion and hostility centres around the preference for some people who are involved in Don’t Pay to protect their identities. I share some of the discomfort with this approach. I’ve done quite a few media interviews on behalf of the campaign, but have always made it clear that I don’t wish to remain anonymous. However, I can quite understand why others, particularly younger people, don’t feel the same. They’ve only known a political world reflected through the often distorted and sometimes very nasty and destructive world of social media. They’re also much more aware of the inevitable threat from spies in the room and agent provocateurs. Sometimes, this anxiety feels a bit over-blown to me and I also think it will come to limit the potential of Don’t Pay to grow beyond its current boundaries.
But there are some more important aspects to the organisational culture I’ve experienced with Don’t Pay. So far, it has not been clear where the lines of democratic decision-making and accountability lie. Internal debate, such as it is, seems to take place almost entirely online, but even this doesn’t appear to address some of the key tactical and strategic decisions. After about six weeks of quite close involvement, I don’t know how to raise issues of concern, or even make suggestions about the next steps for the campaign. Again, to some extent, this is forgivable. It’s been a very intense few weeks and in general, I think Don’t Pay has done a brilliant job, particularly because – at least as far as I know – it relies entirely on voluntary effort. But the group will have to make some big calls in the coming weeks and it’s vital the grassroots activists who constitute it are given a full opportunity to take part.
To some extent, these issues reflect the anarcho-autonomist-structureless approach to organisation. Now, perhaps, isn’t the time to fully explore them, but suffice to say that I hold to the view expressed by Jo Freeman in her seminal 1970 paper, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Given the urgency of the energy bill crisis, I accept that prolonged debates about organisational structure and processes, could be a distraction from the main point in hand. I also accept that more “traditional” models, like those usually found in the labour movement (committees, office holders, minutes of meetings etc.) are not, inherently, more democratic.
But again, I try to look at these things with some context. I was part of the Poll Tax rebellion in the late 1980s/early 1990s. From my recollection, that movement did not begin with a fully worked out organisational structure. When I first got involved, with my local Anti-Poll Tax Federation, I didn’t know the names of the people who were leading it or what their political backgrounds and perspectives were. I found out soon enough, but in those early days, the vital task was building the network of local community resistance and solidarity, something that Don’t Pay is trying to do now.
While allowing that there are areas of uncertainty and concern, I’m disappointed that some of the negative views of Don’t Pay are coming from within the labour movement. In most cases, this is not taking the form of overt criticism, but through ignoring Don’t Pay, while trying to compete with it. Part of my evidence for this is that three different labour movement-orientated publications I’ve written for on numerous occasions in the past, have so far rejected my offer to write something about Don’t Pay (hence this blog post). At the same time, a great deal of effort is going into building other movements to resist the cost-of-living onslaught, particularly “Enough is Enough”.
Don’t Pay and Enough is Enough present quite different styles of organisation, but I see no reason why they can’t co-operate and collaborate. From my experience, Don’t Pay has been trying to do that. It has, for example, produced a motion for union branches and has used its social media platform to show support for the rising tide of strikes, which is ultimately, the critical element in the current situation. But I’ve also had an experience with Don’t Pay that may indicate why some in the labour movement are suspicious. While I’ve been doing a lot of interviews on behalf of the campaign, they’ve almost all been with the foreign media. This is not a reflection of my linguistic skills! It was made clear to me that a decision had been taken – somewhere? – that I should not be prominently identified with the campaign in the UK because of my easily-traced history as an activist and Don’t Pay wants to avoid appearing too closely associated with the left. Again, I can understand the reasons for this, but it’s a mistake.
Ultimately though, I think this is a moment when we have to see the big picture. Whatever disagreements we may have around organisational form, they pale in significance alongside the massive threats we face. Another of the criticisms Don’t Pay has faced is the presumption that it’s “encouraging” people not to pay energy bills, as some kind of self-indulgent choice. As with the Poll Tax, those who don’t pay will be far outnumbered by those who can’t. The new Tory Prime Minister will inherit the biggest socio-economic crisis in living memory and will quickly prove unequal to the task. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has rendered itself peripheral to the day-to-day experiences of working class people. All this confirms that we’re in a period of profound political volatility in which the old ways of doing things aren’t adequate. That’s why Don’t Pay deserves attention and support.
The energy bill crisis, with it’s direct link to looming environmental catastrophe, distils the essence of a system broken beyond repair. Building an alternative is going to take forming alliances that don’t always come easily and being prepared to accept differences to create the widest possible unity. So long as these things are openly and democratically discussed, there’s nothing to fear. The times are changing, but as the man said, “please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand”.