‘Huge turnouts’ reported at UK cost of living protests

<span>Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

Thousands have gathered in dozens of towns and cities across the UK to register their anger at the cost of living crisis in what organisers describe as the largest wave of simultaneous protests seen in Britain for years.

From Eastbourne to Edinburgh, Newcastle to Norwich, “huge turnouts” were described throughout the UK at protests timed to coincide with the jump in gas and electricity unit prices that will cause bills to soar.

Coordinated between multiple community organisations and trade unions to maximise their impact, Saturday’s protests were staged against a backdrop of the biggest rail strike in Britain for decades.

At King’s Cross in central London, however, the station’s vast forecourt was crammed with crowds of protesters.

Teaching assistant Farzana Khanom, 23, said she was having to choose between paying rising energy bills and investing in her career.

“But if we come together and make our voices heard then perhaps we can make a difference,” she said.

Nearby, below a sea of fluttering union banners and the red smoke of a flare, pensioner Paul Mason, 66, said he had turned up because the volume of protesters had the potential to resonate.

Protesters at King’s Cross.
Protesters at King’s Cross. Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

“It depends on how many people turn up of course, what the size of the groundswell is. Eventually they might listen but I’m not hopeful. For the past 13 years they [the Tories] have destroyed the country. Working people cannot afford to live.”

His friend Sarah Golden, 52, added: “I felt so powerless, we can’t vote for example. I wanted to try to make a difference so decided to come here.”

As she spoke, the number of signatures on a recently launched petition calling for a general election to “end the chaos of this government” soared above 300,000.

Across the UK reports of householders setting fire to their utility bills emerged, a symbolic gesture promoted by Don’t Pay UK, a grassroots movement that has received almost 200,000 pledges from householders who are prepared to cancel their direct debits if a million Britons commit to not paying.

Originally, the campaign’s anonymous organisers had pledged not to pay from Saturday, the date when regulator Ofgem’s price cap was due to rise, if a million people had signed up. The scale would “give safety in numbers” from repercussions, they argued.

The cap had been due to increase by 80% to £3,549 from 1 October, and then hit £5,400 in January. Instead, under Liz Truss’s energy price guarantee an average annual bill will be capped at £2,500 for two years as of Saturday.

The movement was started in June by a small group of friends, who have remained anonymous for fear of consequences.

Those involved in the campaign appear to fit into two groups: those who cannot pay their bills this winter and those ideologically opposed to the large profits made in certain sections of the energy industry who want to send a message to large businesses by not paying.

“We’ll keep building the strike until the 1 million threshold – but local groups have also been building the structures we need in our local communities to protect ourselves and each other from the cold this winter,” the spokesman adds.

The campaigners’ big precedent, the poll tax riots, took 4 million people refusing to pay – some of whom faced liability orders forcing them to pay – to get the government to scrap the levy.

Whether this movement can reach that scale remains to be seen, but perhaps a freezing winter, blackouts and the prospect of civil unrest could trigger further action from the government.