Opinion

Rent strikes and bill boycotts in the UK are great in principle – but I’d end up with no electricity and an eviction notice

Since my last entry in this series, a lot has happened, especially in Westminster. Finally, we’re saying goodbye to the pathological liar who has occupied Downing Street for the past two years.

However, I’m under no illusion that whichever Tory takes Johnson’s place won’t be cut from the same cloth. It worries me whether someone like Rishi Sunak, who enjoys phenomenal wealth and is married into a family of billionaires, could possibly have the knowhow to represent the most deprived in our society. This was confirmed by his unwillingness to commit to increasing state benefits by anywhere near the rise in inflation.

Fortunately for me, things are going quite well at work – at a charity that helped me when I was unable to work and struggling. Still, the nature of my mental illness means I would be forced to survive on benefits if I deteriorate even slightly. Meagre benefits that don’t even come close to covering my rising outgoings. I can only hope that won’t happen.

My groceries have rocketed in price by up to 30% over the past month. Even though I work full-time, high food prices mean I sometimes still do need to use the food bank to feed myself and my children. I’m seeing a steady stream of new faces at the food bank, and I fear that as summer gives way to winter – when people have to choose between heating or eating – even more desperate people will file through its doors.

At the moment though, it’s the heat that’s the problem. When we saw temperatures reach record-breaking highs in July, leading to scientists declaring the UK to no longer be “a cold country”. Naturally, poor people like me will suffer the most from extreme temperatures. I rent in the private sector, where private landlords have almost carte blanche to mistreat tenants with impunity. Badgering them for improved insulation or retrofitted air conditioning could backfire in the shape of an eviction letter. And I can’t invest in my property because it’s not really my property.

You’d think if the government was serious about fighting the climate crisis and reducing emissions, it would make vital energy-saving measures such as insulation mandatory and would dedicate military efficiency to building as many new zero-energy social homes as possible. Fat chance. It feels like the Tories’ whole raison d’etre is to keep people like me as poor as possible.

I don’t want a whole lot. I don’t have extravagant tastes. When I finally had a small amount of money from my first paycheck, I spent it on banal things such as disposable brush heads for my electric toothbrush, which alleviated worries about not having bare essentials. I don’t long for riches, but I would like the security of tenure somewhere.

The cruelty of these Tories, coupled with the lack of a decent alternative on the horizon, has convinced some that taking direct action is the only way to prevent more people from sinking into poverty. Some activists have advocated for rent strikes and energy bill boycotts. Even though I understand and, to some extent, support such radical action in theory, I couldn’t dream of participating in practice. I’m on a prepaid energy meter, so boycotting my bills will only achieve cutting myself off. Moreover, even though I’d love to take a break from paying rent, doing so would earn me a section 21 eviction notice even though the government has frequently promised to abolish them.

No, people like me will simply have to carry on grinning and bearing it, but winter is coming, and a 40% hike in energy costs will accompany the cold. I don’t know how long we can continue to tolerate this.

  • As told to Daniel Lavelle. James is in his 50s and lives in London. Names have been changed

  • The Trussell Trust is an anti-poverty charity that campaigns to end the need for food banks. Show your support at: trusselltrust.org/guardian

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