Technology will help cushion the cold, hard blow of a winter of discontent - John Loudon
Global recession, wars, economic shocks, Cold War stalemate, nuclear proliferation, endless strikes, stagflation, the rise of the far right and football hooliganism all featured heavily…and that’s before Liebfraumilch, bell bottoms, and prog rock have even been mentioned.
So, it’s understandably worrying that so much public discussion now appears to be dominated by doom-laden comparisons with that decade and warnings about rising prices, fuel shortages, negative growth and industrial action are inevitably affixed with the phrase ‘a return to the 1970s’.
Vladimir Putin’s fixing of the global gas market has been compared with the 1973 OPEC crisis which led to Edward Heath’s three-day week and electricity blackouts that still scar the memories of those who lived through them.
With every new announcement of industrial action, we’re warned of another ‘Winter of Discontent’ on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous economic statement last month was unfavourably likened to Anthony Barber’s infamous ‘dash for growth’ budget of 1972, which prefaced much of Britain’s economic woes for the remainder of the decade.
As the nation braces itself for the most telling winter in generations, and the unleashing of unprecedented hardship upon millions of households across the UK, we can take some comfort from the knowledge that technological advancements over the past 50 years will help to cushion the blow for some.
The main difference between the 1970s and today is the level of connectivity we now enjoy.
While that is not to deny the inevitable suffering many people will feel in the months ahead, the means of information sharing now available to most of us, should provide some respite.
Smart meters – now a condition for obtaining the most cost-effective electricity and gas deals – have brought to an end the use of estimated bills and offer consumers a better insight into how their energy is consumed.
It’s now much simpler to switch to cheaper tariffs than in the past and the Government’s cap on domestic fuel charges will stave-off the possibility of unchecked price hikes, at least in the short term.
Smartphone apps allow users to set routines to switch appliances and electronics on and off at certain times, helping to improve efficiency and save money.
Some – such as Samsung SmartThings – enable users to connect to their smart meter and allow energy consumption and costs tracking from their iphone of android device.
Energy bills aside, we also have apps and online tools for online banks such as Monzo, to help us track our spending and to budget more effectively. We can have notifications sent to our phone whenever money is spent and organise money into different ‘pots’, giving us a breakdown of what we are spending.
Other budgeting apps such as Emma or Snoop Finance’s Budget Planner can be connected to mainstream bank accounts to help track spending and set monthly budgets.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference today, compared with the 1970s, however, is the ability we have to contact one another remotely.
Staying in touch and sharing our experiences on chat forums, social media and consumer experience platforms is the most effective way to ensure we are being treated fairly and equally.
Such connectivity should, in theory, also allow us to keep tabs on those who are at the greatest risk of falling through the welfare cracks.
Some broadband and mobile phone providers are playing their part, introducing cheaper deals for lower-income households and those on Universal Credit, and the Good Things Foundation charity is working with Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three to provide free mobile data people in need – like a foodbank for connectivity.
Community centres, churches and leisure centres are already offering warm, safe havens for those who can’t afford to heat their homes and these essential services will be advertised online and through social media.
And yet, despite the proliferation of communication technologies, their use contains within it the possibility of widening, rather than reducing inequalities.
Besides the cost of remaining online this winter, there is also the knowledge element, which makes access to resources lower among older people as well as those who are low paid and unemployed.
We tend to overlook the fact that help is only available to those who know where to look. Those who don’t, who are the poorest and the least tech savvy, will suffer most.
Some money saving apps, for example, offer tips and guidance on the cheapest deals and can send alerts when they become available. But while many are initially free to download and use, some charge a subscription for continued use or to access some features.
Those who don’t have broadband or smartphone data – or who may soon be forced to give them up because they can’t afford to pay the monthly bills – will be unable to keep in touch with friends and relatives and may be unaware of potentially life saving services in their
We may yet be facing another Winter of Discontent – similar to that of 1978-79 – as rising inflation rates rob more people of spending power, but worse still may be a Winter of Disconnection.
For those affected, it will be worse than anything we have experienced now or in the 1970s, and no amount of technological innovation is likely to provide an answer.
John Loudon is chief executive of Hybrid Anchor which builds online platforms and provides data management solutions for clients in heavily regulated sectors and industries