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From The Socialist newspaper, 1 October 2014

Housing - a history of class struggle

Housing is one of the most pressing social issues in Britain. Millions are struggling to pay their rents or mortgages. Government policies have resulted in rents and house prices reaching crazy heights - allowing a profits bonanza for private developers and landlords.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of tenants are being penalised by the hated 'bedroom tax' and by draconian cuts in council tax benefit. The need for a trade union and communities based housing campaign is urgent.

Dave Walsh gives some examples from the history of workers' and tenants' struggles for decent housing.

At the start of the 20th century 90% of Britain's population had a private landlord. At the outbreak of war in 1914 these landlords began ramping up rents for servicemen's families.

Women across Britain organised tenants' groups to resist the rises. In Glasgow in 1915 they secured the support of the Independent Labour Party and industrial support from the factories and shipyards where emergency committees threatened a wave of sympathy strikes.

These actions forced the government to introduce rent controls and security of tenure which made it harder for landlords to evict tenants.

There is a long tradition of rent strikes in Britain. More recently, in 1972, rent strikes broke out across Britain against the Tory Heath government's Housing Finance Act which aimed to raise council tenants' rents to comparable private sector rates. Hundreds of thousands took part in marches, pickets and meetings and the Labour Party conference resolved not to implement the act.

In Dudley in the West Midlands, the largest tenants association organised 15,000 people to withhold rent. In Kirkby, Merseyside, 3,000 refused to pay the new rent. Their campaign lasted 14 months, drawing support from Liverpool dockers and 9,000 struck in a day of action.

When workers were sacked at the local BirdsEye factory for taking solidarity action, tenants joined the picket line and the men won their jobs back. This industrial support was a key factor in the strength of the tenants' campaigns.

Many Labour councils came to power after campaigns against the act. But when prison was threatened, most councillors voted through the higher rents to avoid breaking the law. Councillors who stayed defiant found themselves facing their own party leadership. Labour MP Anthony Crosland warned councillors they faced losing their homes, savings, seats and jobs with no support from their party if they broke the law.

Eventually only Clay Cross council in Derbyshire stood firm and refused to implement the rent rises. The eleven councillors spoke at workplace meetings, organised street committees to resist the government commissioner and led a march of over 5,000 people through the town.

They were ultimately prepared to risk prison if necessary. Their campaign showed what could have been achieved had other Labour councils led a fightback, and stood by the defiant 1921 Poplar councillors' mantra: 'Better to break the law than break the poor'.

Clay Cross was the only council which refused to implement the rent rises until the Heath government was toppled in 1974 and Harold Wilson's Labour government abolished the act.

Liverpool socialists

In Liverpool in the early 1980s a Liberal-run council, egged on by the Tory Thatcher government, increased council rents by 34% and slashed millions of pounds from the council budget.

Militant (forerunner of the Socialist) activists campaigned against these attacks which in 1983 led to the election of the famed 47 Labour councillors.

This socialist-led council, in the teeth of opposition from the state and the Labour Party leadership, fought the Tory attacks on public services, embarking on a massive house-building programme - double the number of council houses built in total in the rest of the country.

After World War One, Britain's first Labour government responded to tenants' campaigns by introducing the 1924 Housing Act which encouraged councils to clear slums and build council houses. Between the wars two million council houses were built and with rent controls and security of tenure still in place, the landlords' stranglehold was broken.

After World War Two, the Labour Party responded to the workers' movement's demands by supporting policies that resulted in 4.3 million council houses and 3.9 million private houses being built by 1975. Private landlords owned less than 15% of housing stock by the mid-1970s.

Clay Cross and Liverpool also show that campaigns must have political representation to achieve their goals. Successive governments since 1979, driven by their desire to restore landlords' privileged position under capitalism, failed to build social housing in adequate numbers.

In the 1980s the Thatcher government sold many council houses to tenants with huge discounts under the Right to Buy scheme, while restricting councils' ability to build replacement stock. This policy continued under the Blair and Brown Labour governments.

Today, Labour councillors show by their actions that they offer no alternative to the capitalist crisis and are willing to implement savage cuts and austerity. A few brave Labour councillors have resisted but they have been marginalised or expelled while the Labour Party bulldozes forward with its neoliberal agenda.

We need a national campaign, spearheaded by tenants' groups but involving the trade unions with industrial support, alongside a political campaign that gives a voice to tenants' demands.

These demands include a rent cap at affordable levels, a crash programme of mass council house building, renovating empty ones and setting a living wage with no lower youth rates.

The Labour Party today utterly opposes these solutions. Many union members see that their unions are wasting their time and money trying to reclaim a party which has no intention of being reclaimed. And they are concluding that a new mass workers' party is the answer.

'Rent caps, not benefit caps'

Socialists call for a return to rent control, whereas Labour has proposed an extremely limited form of it. It timidly proposes to restrict rent rises to once a year based on 'market values', capped at an unspecified "upper ceiling".

Rents continue to shoot up. The Tory government abolished rent control and secure tenancies for private tenants in the 1980s and the following Labour governments did nothing to restore it. The Tories acknowledged that rents would rise but when challenged that this would create hardship they said that increased housing benefit payments would "take the strain".

Private landlords now take huge sums in rent and benefit from rising property prices and the Tories have the cheek to punish tenants with benefit caps. Benefits paid for rising rents don't make the tenants rich - they do make the landlords rich.

The legislation for rent control with secure tenancies and rent tribunals to agree 'fair rents' is still on the statute book. For old tenancies rent tribunals still operate. So it would be simple to bring back rent control as an emergency measure.

Paul Kershaw

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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In The Socialist 1 October 2014:

International socialist news and analysis

No to imperialist war

US led bombings will worsen divisions

Hong Kong: "umbrella revolution" changes everything

Socialist Party news and analysis

More brutal cuts from the imploding Tories

Labour: no real alternative

Housing - a history of class struggle

Them & Us

Socialist Party workplace news

Pay cuts: Angry and ready to strike!

Local government pay: Reject employers' proposal

Hove Park victory: academies can be stopped

Doncaster Care UK workers start record strike

Continuing Bob Crow's legacy after RMT election

CWU's political fund and political voice

Socialist Students

York University - Student housing letting agency victory

Round up: Socialist Students at the freshers fairs

What party should students vote for?

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Support the E15 mums

Scotland is in a party joining mood

Fire and rescue... rescued

Wet books: send bucks!

Readers' comments and reviews

Labour's housing failure

A day in the life of an agency worker

Film review: Still the enemy within


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