Opinion

Britain is entering a profound social emergency. Why is nobody acting like it?

The surreal, often absurd Conservative leadership election meanders on. Both candidates frantically float ideas for disrupting everything from university term dates to doctors’ pensions, while the Sunday Telegraph endorses Liz Truss as “the first truly philosophy-driven leader since Margaret Thatcher”, and Rishi Sunak stoically insists that he loves dancing. But we all know the gravity of the crisis that is now enveloping us, and it makes the vanities of their battle seem like some strange hallucination related to the summer’s stifling heat.

By the autumn, the victor – Truss, in all likelihood – may well be still trying to convince us that they are leading a national sprint towards sunlit uplands that only they can see. But the game is already up: the immediate future will be defined by skyrocketing energy prices, economic woe and a profound social emergency – and power will be a grinding matter of crisis management.

Everything will become clear on 26 August, when the energy regulator Ofgem will announce the new price cap due to come into force on 1 October. Back in April, it increased by 54%, pushing up the typical annual household fuel bill to £1,971. Now, as Russia continues to choke off the supply of natural gas to western Europe, recent projections have suggested an increase of about 70%, to £3,359 a year – and in January, prices will go up again by an estimated 8%. Late last week, one group of analysts said that Ofgem’s decision to alter the price cap every three months meant that annual bills could exceed £4,200. Self-evidently, these hikes – which look as if they will endure into 2024 – will also have big consequences for general inflation. Some people, meanwhile, are having a whale of a time: last week, the oil and gas giant BP announced quarterly profits of £6.9bn, its highest figure for 14 years.

What awaits us when temperatures drop, and lives become unlivable? We may well be about to enter the era of the “warm bank”. In Bristol, the city council is readying “welcoming places”, where people who need warmth will be able to go if their homes get too cold. Dundee is planning an array of “cosy spaces”; in Aberdeen, a city council spokesperson recently said they would be offering libraries and other public buildings to “give people the opportunity to stay warm where required”.

And across the country, providers of emergency food are reaching snapping point. In Hull, the city council has joined voluntary sector organisations to form the Hull Food Inequality Alliance, intended to maximise help available through the autumn and winter, and sound the alarm about a completely untenable situation. It has pointed out what ought to be completely obvious: the fact that “the current model of community food aid is not a sustainable or a morally acceptable solution to addressing poverty in the long term”.

Much the same applies to the one-off payments the government has introduced to parry the effects of energy price rises: £400 to all households (to be paid in instalments between October and next March), and another £300 for pensioners, and an extra “one-off cost of living payment” to 8m households on means-tested benefits, both of which will have been issued by the end of this year. This help is significant, but it is not set to be repeated.

Crude lump sums, moreover, take no account of people’s particular circumstances; much of the money, poverty experts say, will be swallowed up by already existing debt. Ministers would doubtless rebuff such points by also highlighting their pledge to increase benefits next April by this September’s rate of inflation – but again, nothing is what it seems. By the spring of 2023, prices look set to be rising even faster. Any increase in benefits will have to be set against Sunak’s cruel decision to withdraw the £20 a week “uplift” in universal credit introduced during the pandemic. And besides, nothing on the table will fill the gaps left by benefit freezes, caps, “sanctions” and restrictions.

There is an even bigger point, which is still overlooked: millions who are not entitled to targeted help will still really suffer due to rising energy prices. Put another way, this is a genuinely national crisis. Fuel poverty has traditionally been defined as when energy costs exceed 10% of a household’s net income. In the financial year 2019-20, just under 20% of UK households were in that category, according to recent research by the University of York’s Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung, and published by the Child Poverty Action Group. But their projection suggests that, without further measures – and even factoring in the universal £400 rebate – this figure is set to jump to well over 50% by the start of next year. In Northern Ireland, they reckon, 70% of households will be in fuel poverty; in Scotland, Wales and the north-west of England it will be about 60%. Fuel poverty, the research projects, will soon affect nearly 90% of single parents with two or more children. This kind of research, Prof Bradshaw told me, is complicated, and bound by the limits of official statistics: the basic point, he said, is to “show that this is going to be very bad unless something else happens”.

Two things now define Britain’s political condition. One is a post-Brexit Conservatism that frequently seems to have only the most tenuous connection to reality, practised by people who tend to get very cross whenever they are reminded of what we actually face. The other is a rising sense of crises that ought to invite convincing answers – not least from the Labour party – but that only highlight the hollowness of Westminster’s discourse. The result is a political vacuum that will be filled, one way or another – and I am not sure that talk of a “poll tax moment” adequately describes what is about to happen. Quite understandably, there will soon be more industrial disputes and strikes. Last week saw the launch of a campaign titled Don’t Pay, demanding “the reduction of bills to an affordable level”, under threat of the mass cancellation of direct debits.

Just about all the tensions that have eaten away at British politics since the crash of 2008 – from the fraying of the United Kingdom to the scourge of blame-the-foreigner populism – will presumably worsen; social unrest is surely a distinct possibility. These will be the results not just of the energy crisis, but long years of austerity and institutionalised cruelty, overseen by Tory politicians who thought they could ignore the central socio-political lesson of the 20th century: that if you want order and stability, you should always try to minimise fear.

And here we are again. Having just insisted he would get “much tougher on welfare” and bragged about taking money out of deprived areas, Sunak suddenly says he would give people more help, but offers no specifics. Truss rejects “handouts” in favour of wildly misplaced tax cuts. “We will level up the country in a Conservative way … making it an aspiration nation,” she says. 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. Until that gnawing injustice is addressed, politics will continue to teeter into the absurd.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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