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What would happen if we all just stopped paying our bills?

Don’t Pay is a new campaign urging people to stop paying their energy bills from October 1 – here, we speak to the organisers to find out if it could actually work

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we all just chose to stop paying our bills? If so many of us refused to pay that energy companies simply couldn’t do anything about it? It might sound like a pipe dream, but Don’t Pay is a new campaign urging people to cancel their direct debits from 1 October. If one million people pledge their support, the strike will go ahead.

Back in April, a group of friends came up with the idea in the pub after feeling the urge to do something to combat the spiralling cost of living crisis. “We are all socially and class-conscious people who often discuss and make plans to respond to what we see as oppressive economic violence meted out on working-class people,” Jess, one of the organisers, tells Dazed.

“Energy bills and their costs are some of the single most important things that we are all feeling at this moment,” she continues. “With the atrocious and unjust rises we’ve had over the last year and are expecting in October, we felt now was the time to really take the jump and start Don’t Pay.”

Jess is right: energy bills rose by almost half in April, leaving around 6.5 million people unable to sufficiently heat their homes – a staggering figure for the world’s sixth-largest economy. Things are set to get worse, too, with bills expected to rise from an average of £2,000 a year to £3,000 a year in October, which is estimated to plunge a further two million people into fuel poverty.

Jess explains that the movement also seeks to express solidarity with those who are already financially unable to pay. “There are 28 million households with electric and gas supplies in the UK. At least 1 million people are already in arrears – ie people who Can’t Pay. This number will increase massively as we get towards the winter — average energy bills will have tripled since last summer.” 

At present, over 5,000 people have signed up to volunteer and 140,000 leaflets have been ordered from the Don’t Pay website. “The response has been incredibly powerful so far,” Jess says. “We’re already in a huge crisis and everyone knows it’s going to get so much worse if there isn’t a big change in direction.”

It’s undeniably impressive – but can the organisers behind Don’t Pay really pull off the campaign? This is the UK, after all, the land of “keeping calm and carrying on” and “Blitz spirit” and “stiff upper lips”, where people are addicted to struggling and vehemently opposed to any kind of civil disobedience. There’s no real sense of community or compassion, thanks to decades of individualistic Tory policy eroding the social fabric and promoting an ‘every man for himself’ mentality.

But the organisers are aware of this – and they point out that it’s not like Brits haven’t challenged societal injustice before.“We’ve been adamant from the start that if this is going to be a viable form of action then it needs to be more than just a hashtag and viral social media campaign,” Jess tells Dazed. “The Poll Tax Rebellion of 1989 and 1990 is a real source of inspiration, where 17 million did not pay [the abolition of Poll Tax was then announced in 1991]. This still has a very strong cultural and political significance in the UK. So, for us to get to one million, we are aiming to facilitate the creation of very localised groups – maybe even to the level of streets or neighbourhoods – to help get the pledge out before October 1st.”

“We’re already in a huge crisis and everyone knows it’s going to get so much worse if there isn’t a big change in direction” – Jess

“As with anything, there have been concerns and questions,” Jess continues. “People have asked what they can do if they’re on pre-payment meter and can’t strike because that means being cut off from supply, but they can still support the campaign in their local communities.”

Others are worried about fear of disconnection – but it’s actually difficult for energy companies to disconnect customers. According to the Don’t Pay website, as few as eight energy supply disconnections for non-payment were reported in 2018. That said – it’s still a risk, as is a detrimental effect on strikers’ credit scores. “While we know there are ways to mitigate these, the reality of the situation is that millions of people will face these anyway if we don’t take this action,” Jess says. “And they’ll have to face them on their own.”

“We want to build our collective power, support our neighbours and give people hope that things can be different.”