Voices: Don’t tell me not to complain – there is real power in a good moan

“Still, I mustn’t complain.” We’ve all heard that one before, or some derivative of it: can’t complain, shouldn’t complain, could be worse. I reckon it’s high time they were all sent to the place where archaic expressions go to die. You can be damn sure that I’m going to complain. And you should too.

We might live in a first world country – although given the number of kids going to school hungry and returning to drafty, damp flats their parents can’t afford to heat, I do wonder – but we still have cause to complain. Waves of contempt still crash down on us from quangos, local councils and those companies providing vital services who use our money to fatten the wallets of shareholders on the other side of the world.

Then there is the government presiding over all this, with its shills who like to rock up on our TV screens to gaslight the country. How many times do we have to listen to some rube telling us what a fabulous job some minister with a first-class degree in incompetence is doing? You could probably find a broken Microsoft Zune in the average landfill that would provide a better service than most of the cabinet. About the best that can be said of the current line-up is that for the first time in 13 years it doesn’t contain Liz Truss in any capacity. But that’s slim comfort.

Can’t complain? If we don’t, powerful organisations may as well have “thou shalt treat the client/customer/service user like dirt or worse if you want a bonus” on a grey plaque outside their offices. Examples? Oh, there are many. How about the mobile phone providers who sign us up to contracts and then juice the price halfway through because their regulators allow them to fleece us. How about the banks who take our money and then tell us “your call is important to us” when something’s gone wrong with an account that they can’t be bothered to fix.

Or the water companies who allow their product to leak all over the roads when they’re not digging them up. The energy companies who can’t answer simple questions about their billing, and remotely switch the smart meters of vulnerable consumers onto expensive pre-payment plans. That disgraceful example of sharp – and rule-breaking – practice emerged just this week. It is time we stopped fatalistically shrugging our shoulders when confronted with bad practice, because we do have rights and we must assert them.

Complaints about financial companies are, for example, monitored by the Financial Conduct Authority. Complaints about broadband and mobile phone providers are scrutinised by Ofcom. There’s value in letting those organisations know when the companies they oversee are behaving badly.

In a number of sectors, ombudsman services exist to investigate unresolved complaints. There’s one for the NHS, local government, energy, communications, pensions, parliament. Did you know that financial companies face a fee of £750 after four complaints are brought before the Financial Ombudsman Service? They have to pay whatever the consequences. Those fees mount up. It can be daunting to file a complaint to a large and unfriendly organisation like a bank. But if they fail to respond satisfactorily, you can go to the ombudsman with the surefire knowledge that it’s going to cost them anyway.

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By too often saying “can’t complain” we’ve lost the art of revenge. The frustration builds until it explodes, leaving the innocent party, such as a crimeless employee, battered and bruised for the failures of their big bosses. In this case, an explosive outburst from the complainant also means they have lost. Far better to maintain an icy fury. Even bureaucratic callousness of the most sclerotic institutions is likely to whimper in the face of that. It takes a bit – sometimes a lot – of effort but eventually you may even find yourself getting paid. “Get lost” money is still money and especially right now, all money is good money.

I had to table a succession of complaints against my bank and ended up £200 richer as a result of each one netting me £50, because that’s a lot cheaper than a £750 trip to the ombudsman. Given enough of a push from having to pay out repeatedly, service providers might even see the value in shaping up.

There is almost a punk-like sensibility to the artful complaint. But it’s a socially valuable exercise, too, if it ultimately forces organisations to behave a little better. We should do it more often. Can’t complain? We can. And we should, because we deserve better.