New group that follows old adage of strength in numbers

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WHEN it comes to campaigning, the community action group 38 Degrees isn’t afraid of taking on the big guns.

And while some campaign organisations talk a good game but don’t get the results, 38 Degrees has a pretty impressive track record in terms of living up to its founding principle of “people. power. change.”

Their member-led action has already helped stop the Government’s plans to sell off the country’s ancient national forests, halt proposals for a mega-dairy in Lincolnshire and put pay to Donald Trump’s plans to build a golf course at the expense of families in Menie, Scotland, who were at risk of eviction.

It has also been a vocal opponent of the Government’s controversial NHS reforms and now it is taking aim at the big energy companies in a new campaign to get more customers to switch to cheaper tariffs.

But can a non-profit organisation which doesn’t get any funding from the Government or big business and is made up of ordinary people, really make giant multi-national firms sit up and take notice?

It might appear as though 38 Degrees has bitten off more than it can chew, but its members believe in the old adage that there is strength in numbers and have joined forces with the consumer group Which? to give The Big Switch campaign greater clout.

The idea is that by getting people together to negotiate as a group with the energy companies, rather than individually, they will have much more bargaining power. It’s a tactic that has proved successful in several other countries where high energy prices have come down on the back of collective action from customers.

Which? says UK consumers are collectively paying a staggering £4.1 bn a year more than they need to by not switching their energy tariff to the cheapest deal and since its launch last month about 200,000 people have already signed up to The Big Switch campaign.

Becky Jarvis, a campaigner with 38 Degrees, says consumers are being asked to sign up by March 31 and then the energy companies, including the big six and smaller operators, will be invited to submit deals and take part in a reverse auction. The best deal will then be offered to everyone who signed up and experts from Which? will sort out the switch over.

“People are fed up with the big gas and electric companies ripping us off by making us pay high bills when the global price of gas has actually gone down,” says Jarvis.

“Just before we launched our campaign we sent a petition, which 96,000 people signed, to the big six gas and electric companies calling on them to bring down their prices.

“They did make a small price cut but this didn’t affect old customers and it was really nothing more than a gesture. What we want is for customers and consumers to get a market-leading deal and the best way of doing that is working together. If one person tries to take on the big gas and electric companies then they won’t get taken seriously, but 200,000 people, or even 30,000, are much more likely to be listened to.”

The big energy companies have also been heavily criticised for making excessive profits – November’s estimate from Ofgem, disputed by energy firms, suggested the profit margin on energy bills in Britain had almost doubled from 2010. “In Yorkshire there are a staggering number of people in fuel poverty,” says Jarvis, “but this isn’t a luxury item it’s something people need and yet we keep hearing about people having to choose between eating and heating.”

Since it was launched in 2009, 38 Degrees has grown rapidly and now has fast approaching a million members who set the agenda by voting on the issues they want to campaign on, whether it’s cruelty to circus animals or opposing Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB.

Jarvis says they have played an important role in a short time. “We’ve had a lot of success over the campaign to stop the sell off of our forests, we stood up against Rupert Murdoch along with others and we’re fighting against the NHS cuts.”

The aim is to make a positive difference in society by defending fairness, protecting people’s rights and improving the democratic process. “It gives everybody a voice and it proves that people power can be successful and that we’re stronger when we work together.”

For more information about The Big Switch campaign visit www.38degrees.org.uk