“How To Stay Warm Without Turning The Heating On”: UK Poverty And Its “Moron Premium”

“If I put the heating on, my direct debit goes up. If I cook more hot food, it goes up. I’m now paranoid about how many times I boil the kettle for hot drinks….I used to read my son Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where his grandparents never got out of bed, and realise this is my life now”.

– Marin (in her 60s, name changed), The Guardian, 12 Dec 2022

“I wanted to join the protests calling for a general election, but I can’t. I’m two months into my new job, working on a pilot youth project… for young offenders. I can’t run the risk of getting arrested and losing my job. I’m working about 50 hours a week at the moment – with a Saturday job too – and it feels like I’m juggling a thousand plates”.

– Sharron Spice (in her 30s), The Guardian, 30 Nov 2022

“The cost of living crisis, inflation and recession are apparent every time I visit the supermarket…, every time I top up my electricity meter… Four pints of milk used to set me back a quid (£1/$1.23); now, it’s twice as much for twice as less…. The energy price cap could rise as high as £6,000/$7,400 by next year, and 45 million people are going to be plunged into fuel poverty as a consequence – that’s 60% of the population…. I’ve not yet had to turn off appliances like my fridge and freezer to save energy, but I know people who have, and maybe it is something I’ll have to consider because this winter it will be even harder to keep warm…. Fridges are expensive”.

– James (in his 50s, name changed), The Guardian, 30 Nov 2022

“’63-year-old Brian Preston… no longer has a washing machine… because of the price of energy and washes his clothes in his bathtub and drip-dries them on a clothes horse. “We’re going back to Victorian times,” he said. “I can’t afford to eat hot food. I can’t afford to put the gas or electric on. I’m eating cold beans, sardines. It’s very rare I put my cooker on. It’s got that bad’”.

The Independent, 13 Dec 2022

The above-mentioned individuals are in extremis as a result of Tory government policies enacted since 2010. (In my last CounterPunch piece I pointed out, using an array of economic indicators, how the UK no longer rivals Germany and France, but is approaching the situation of an Eastern European developing economy.)

UK media (print and internet) have been replete with advice for individuals in such straits. For the relatively well-off (and I include myself in this category) such advice may seem banal and commonplace, even though the guidance proffered is hugely salutary for anyone interested in a low-commodity-acquisition and low-energy-consuming way of life.

Here are some snippets from these myriad pieces of advice:

+ Have a hot bath or shower before bed | Wear proper pyjamas (avoid fleece and go for thermals) | Work out before bed |Two bodies are better than one (“Sharing body heat is an effective way to keep warm, and being closer to your partner may also help to improve your mood”) | There are foods to eat (and avoid) before bed if you want to stay warm (e.g. “Skip the salad – but also sidestep the chilli”) | Wearing multiple thin layers will keep you warmer than a single thicker layer, because warm air gets trapped between each piece of fabric. (The UK health authorities say rooms should be heated to 18C/64.4F.)

+ Don‘t flush the toilet every time.

+ Use candles instead of electricity.

+ Use a microwave/air fryer/ slow cooker/instant pot. However, a 10-year-old Panasonic microwave consuming 2W when doing nothing other than displaying the time ended up costing £6/$7.40 per year.

+ Use a BBQ grill more often.

+ Switch lighting to LEDs.

+ Run major appliances in non-peak times if your power company has different rates for different times of the day. Incidentally, last month the National Grid raised the discounts on electricity bills for households that cut peak-time use (i.e. from 4-7pm). Households are being paid £3/$3.70 per kilowatt hour instead of 52p/65 cents if they avoid high-power consumption during that time. The service will however only be available to homes with electricity smart meters (around 14 million households).

+ When air drying laundry, put a desktop fan near the drying items and open a window or two. The circulating air will dry your clothes more quickly.

+ Invest in dryer balls or eggs— they prevent clothes from sticking to each other while in the dryer, and reduce electricity consumption by about 25%.

+ Use manual appliances instead of electric.

+ Adjust the hot water heater to a lower temp.

+ Only fill and boil the kettle with as much water as you need.

+ “Does a kettle use more electricity than a TV?”

+ Add plentiful raw foods (salads!) to your diet of cooked foods.

+ Batch cook— cook for more than 1 meal each time.

+ Cut foods smaller– cutting foods into smaller pieces before cooking reduces cooking time (and hence electricity consumption).

+ When using the oven cook hot items first, then use the switched-off and cooling oven to cook or heat items that require a lower temperature. That way you heat your oven once but cook twice.

+ Use the same oven plate to cook more than one item— e.g. when cooking rice or pasta place a bamboo tray on top of the pot to steam your vegetables.

+ Don’t put hot food in the fridge.

+ Wash by hand as opposed to using the dishwasher. If using the latter run it during off-peak periods, use the eco or low-energy mode, or let dishes air dry instead of using the heat-drying cycle on the machine.

+ “Heat the human not the home”

+ “10 ways to keep warm without having to put the heating on at all this winter”.

+ “Best low cost thermal clothing to keep warm this winter”.

+ “Coping with dropping temperatures – your questions answered”.

+ The historically pro-Tory Financial Times: “‘People are going to die’: verdict from front line of Britain’s energy crisis”.

+ Huffington Post: “Energy Crisis: Why Is The UK The Worst Affected Country In Western Europe?”.

+ Hot drinks, free coats, cold, hungry children: the shocking reality of Britain’s winter “warm banks”. As of 1 December, a dozen warm banks opened for people in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (more prosperous parts of the UK) who can’t afford to heat their homes.

+ Last but not least, clip as many supermarket coupons as possible. (Duh!)

Invaluable though such well-meaning endeavours and suggestions may be– and there are thousands more to be found on the internet– those comfortably-off may still wish to bear in mind the plight of the mother whose only daily meal is beans on toast for breakfast so her hungry children can eat.

Or the 77-year-old widow who uses her senior bus pass to ride buses all day so she can stay warm.

Or The 79-year-old woman who wears 4 layers, stays under blankets with a hot water bottle, and runs 10km/6.2 miles a day with her dog Ben just to keep warm.

Or the mother who said, “It was so cold my daughter had an asthma attack, but I can’t afford to heat our home”.

Or the 75-year-old army veteran, who owes £1,400/$1720 in energy bills, and says he has lost nearly 2 stone/28lbs in a month as he faces the grim choice of heating or eating.

Or the 89-year-old man in Wales with a broken hip and shoulder and a cut head resulting from a fall being taken to hospital tied to a plank in the back of a van because no ambulances were available.

Or Francesca (considering herself “lucky”) who says it is a relief to spend time in the [library] café with her young children, so she doesn’t have to heat their dwelling place. Francesca is upset that the town council did not take her concerns about the widespread mould [in her social housing] seriously (“They told me not to dry clothes inside, but that’s not what’s causing the problem”), though she says her family’s difficulties are relatively slight when compared to others. She’s been saving as much as she can to buy gloves and hats for Ipswich’s homeless population, and intends to donate clothes her children have outgrown to the library’s clothes rail…. “We’re really lucky”, she says. “My partner is in full-time work, so there are people a lot worse off than us. It’s hard for everyone, isn’t it?”

This though is only a minuscule sample of those who are suffering as a result of Tory policy since 2010.

The late Anthony Bourdain said when visiting Cambodia in the aftermath of Henry Kissinger’s secret bombing campaign of that country during the Vietnam War (more bombs were dropped on neutral Cambodia than were deployed during the entire Second World War): “Anyone who visits Cambodia today would want to beat Henry Kissinger to death with their bare hands”.

Those aware of what the Tory government has inflicted on Ukania’s poorest and most vulnerable people may be tempted to espouse Bourdain’s recommended punishment for Kissinger when encountering a senior Tory politician (who like Kissinger is most likely to be a multi-millionaire).

Who would have the heart to fault this bare-handed Tory beater, culpable though they may be in the eyes of the law?

As all this unfolds, financial markets have started to apply a “moron premium” to the price of lending to the UK.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.