Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Housing

The sky's the limit

Mass campaigning is the best way to improve social housing as Mark Weeks explains
Most new housing projects, such as this redevelopment in Liverpool, are privately financed
Most new housing projects, such as this redevelopment in Liverpool, are privately financed

The most influential tenants' organisations in Britain will join forces with some of the most powerful major trade unions to lobby parliament this month. Taroe, the national tenants' organisation, and Ucatt, Unison and the GMB will support an initiative from Defend Council Housing, the national campaign against the privatisation of council housing. There's nothing unusual about tenants and workers fighting side by side for the right to decent, affordable housing. In fact the roots of most tenants' associations are intertwined with those of the organised labour movement.

The call for the formation of tenants' movements to curb the excesses of profiteering landlords came early in the last century as dissatisfaction with government and trade union bureaucracy led to an explosion of trade union militancy. In the Midlands the Amalgamated Society of Engineers actively promoted the setting up of tenants societies and in Wolverhampton the trades council helped set up a tenants' defence league to resist the huge rent increases imposed by the Property Owners Association. This was a formula repeated time and again. A Leeds tenants' defence league was set up with help from the trades council after the secretary of the Leeds Labour Party called for action by tenants. Bradford followed suit. Within a year rent strikes were being called across Britain. Tenant and worker militancy was fuelled on the outbreak of the First World War, when the government passed laws giving landlords extra powers to collect rent and evict tenants. When strikes were called in Woolwich in south east London, and in Handsworth and Lozolls in Birmingham, munitions industry bosses were so worried that they forced the prime minister, Lloyd George, to order local rents to be reduced. Immediately widespread rent strikes were called as tenants hoped for reductions in their areas. Some 1,000 tenants struck in Edmonton, and protests in Barrow against evictions led to copycat actions in Workington.

By far the most important and influential tenants organisations were those in Glasgow. There were already 1,000 members in Clydebank. Paisley boasted 600. A virtual class war was being waged between tenants and landlords. Rent collectors, locally known as factors, had the lowest opinion of local tenants. They had told a housing commission that 'the root of the evil in the housing of the poor is the thriftlessness, intemperance and want of self respect of a considerable class among the tenant occupants'. Tenants were harassed by police, landlords seized furniture from those who were in arrears or late with rent. A local law put thousands of tenants on 'monthly' lets, making it easier to evict them. Annually some 10,000 tenants were served with eviction notices.

Housing played a role in most political activity in the city. The local Labour Party was formed with housing as a central plank of its manifesto. John Wheatley, a major figure in the ILP, was noted for his work around housing. The Scottish socialist John Maclean helped organise the Scottish Federation of Tenants Associations, and the local trades council organised against rent increases. When the war pulled an extra 20,000 workers into the city landlords saw a green light to raise rents. If they had known the fury to come they would not have dared. Nor was it left to the trade unions and political organisations to call the action. It was local women who called demonstrations and rent strikes, and it was they who attacked bailiffs and rent collectors, pelting them with flour and rubbish. The rent strike grew rapidly. At its height 20,000 tenants withheld rent. At a mass demonstration in support of those threatened with jail for non-payment, John Maclean called for a general strike unless action was taken to cut rents and stop evictions. Within a month a law was passed doing just that.

In London's East End in the 1930s, women once again were at the heart of the tenants' fightback. When the Communist Party helped local tenants fight against slum conditions and extortionate rents, Communist activist Phil Piratin wrote, 'Tens of thousands of working class men and women had organised themselves for common struggle...committees were formed, and hundreds of people who had never been on a committee and had no experience of organisation or politics learned those things, and learned them well. Outstanding were the women. Every feminist claim was proved...they were more enthusiastic, and hence more reliable...it was the women who did most of the picketing.'

The picketing Piratin speaks of was during a number of rent strikes. Tenants barricaded their blocks to keep out rent collectors, bailiffs and the police. Sentries were posted day and night. Tenants defended themselves with saucepans, rolling pins, sticks and shovels. The rent strikes were epics, one lasting for 21 weeks. But they gained national publicity, and again their actions were copied around the country. A government feeling vulnerable on the eve of war once again had to give in to tenants' demands. Rents were cut and evictions halted.

These are political lessons that need to be remembered. Council housing, once a source of civic pride, is being starved of funds and turned into urban slums. The 'only' alternative tenants are being given is privatisation. But this time the landlords will be multinational banks, not local bullies. We are seeing a new breed--corporate Rachmannism. Evictions on privatised estates are rising fast, along with rents. The mood is hardening quickly and finding exactly the same political backing that tenants have received in the past. Local trade unions, Labour parties and political activists are joining forces to protect the right to decent, affordable housing for those who need it. The lobby of parliament on 24 January can give tenants and workers the confidence to fight if it is big. Socialists must make sure that every tenant and housing worker who wants to take part in this lobby has the chance to get to Westminster on the day.


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