Power to the people right now

Stuart Fairweather recounts the new initiatives to connect different types of poverty into one campaign.

Recent Scottish Left Review editorials have asked an important, if uncomfortable, question: why has the public response to the cost-of-living crisis demonstrations been so limited? We are not involving enough people, so to increase involvement we need to be timely and relevant, and people need to believe that we can make a difference. This means action on energy prices needs to be more than defensive. Fuel poverty is a reality now but it’s impact on the many looks set to increase further. The production, distribution and sale of gas and electricity have been in profiteers’ hands for too long. 

On 21 May in Glasgow, a ‘Socialist Energy Summit’ was opened by Maggie Chapman MSP, highlighting the need for a ‘just transition’, particularly in north east Scotland. But Boris’s broken Britain is anything but just. So, what do we do? At the event, there were those who recalled relatives that had taken direct action in the 1940s and 1950s to ensure people in their community did not freeze. There were others that drew upon direct experience of the anti-poll tax campaign. Others attending employed in the energy sector added important insights while others linked the need to respond to the climate crisis, land reform and international solidarity. They heard Maggie speak about the urgent need to redistribute wealth to our hardest hit communities. 

Socialists for Independence (see Scottish Left Review May/June 2022) is a new network with its eye on the next referendum. But it sees its role as also being about working with socialists with a range of views on the constitutional question to tackle issues facing us now. The Summit brought together people from across Scotland’s political parties to discuss the energy crisis and its impact on working-class communities. It was about making a start to a campaign of resistance. Democratic Left Scotland and the Party of the European Left added a European context, illustrating how the energy market is rigged and asserted the need for an approach that wins the involvement of people through listening to them. 

Important lessons were learnt about the impact of credit, the hierarchy of spending, and clarity on who it is actually pays the bills. When household incomes are squeezed, other things are likely to go before heating and lighting. But when households are really squeezed people are likely to ‘self-disconnect’. The left needs to re-familiarise itself with the mechanics of debt collection. 

The summit, organised by Socialists for Independence, was a positive event. Post-Covid, it was good to get people back together discussing the politics of real life. Discussion is not enough. So, what happens next? A Glasgow Labour politician suggested knocking doors and collecting people’s views. This work has started with some interesting feedback. Concern is being felt and not just in the most likely areas, those statistically defined as our poorest. People want to talk about their understanding of what has become known as the cost-of-living crisis. People are open to discussions about freezing prices, not wages.

On 24 June in Dundee, a Trades Council-called demonstration drew on the work of the local Unite Community branch. It was the first in a series of events. Here the City’s councillors have already passed a motion condemning the impact of Westminster’s cost-of-living crisis on Dundee. But those at food banks and larders voiced their view to the Community branch that this was of limited effect. Condemnation needs to be allied to developing alternatives and action now. Profits and prices should be cut rather than wages, benefits and pensions. Easier said than done without a movement to push for it. So, can further connections between workforces and communities be made? Mike Arnott, the STUC Vice President’s contribution to the Dundee event suggested this possibility. 

Welcome as these events in Glasgow and Dundee are, they can only be seen as a start if the Left is to regain and develop its relevance. ‘Power to the People’ type events, groups and activities need to take place across the country, discussions are starting. We need to develop a response to fuel poverty and the extraction of profit by building in our communities, workplaces and unions. We need to make demands of politicians at local, Holyrood and Westminster levels. We need to find genuine allies where we can, but we also need to know who our enemies are. We need to take the campaign to the door of the big energy companies that dominate the sector and see profit as a right. 

Every part of Scotland has elected politicians that can sign-up to a list of demands that contributes to putting people before profit. Local councils can ensure there are warm buildings in every community where people can come together to discuss and take action. In some cases, this will mean reversing closures and limited opening hours. Work in itself, but not a distraction. MPs and MSPs need to support policies that challenge the profiteers’ stranglehold over the food on our tables and warmth for our homes. 

But it is not solely about politicians, although they have a role. If we are to respond to the question that this magazine posed, then we need to talk about the future. Renewables might be the technical answer to the energy crisis but at present the big companies control these too. We need to challenge the moral authority of those that justify capitalism. We need just jobs on a living planet. We need control of emerging industries. We need shorter working weeks and working lives. 

We need to start from where people are, being on their doorsteps, reflecting the diversity of the working-class, and listening to and making space for new voices.

Stuart Fairweather is chair of Dundee Trades Union Council and a member of Democratic Left Scotland