Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1062/29789
Three years since victory: Butterfields didn't budge
How working-class tenants beat Gentrification
Linda Taaffe, Secretary, Waltham Forest Trade Union Council
Every time I drive up Lea Bridge Road in Walthamstow, east London, I pass the Butterfields estate. I look with pride to the 'Butterfields won't budge' poster still displayed in the window of one of the tenants.
On closer inspection you can just about discern a smiley-face sticker, added to mark the wonderful victory scored by dozens of tenant families.
Their landlord wanted to drive them out to make more profits, a phenomenon repeated all across London. First they suffered rent hikes. Then, in January 2016, notices to quit by Easter started dropping through letterboxes.
But they didn't quit. The slogan 'Butterfields won't budge' was coined by Ade, one of the tenants. They campaigned. They defied the landlords. They won massive support.
Nine months later, we in Waltham Forest Socialist Party received a phone call from the landlord's frontman. The tenants had won. He wanted us to be the first to know - because, he said: "You did this. You made this happen."
As a way to mark this remarkable struggle, and highlight the need for a collective tenants' fightback against rising rents, we have asked some of the Butterfields tenants to share their memories with us.
Lessons for renters now: collective action works
Nancy Taaffe, Waltham Forest Socialist Party
One of the main lessons of the Butterfields struggle is that if a sizeable group of people are all facing the same injustice, if you group together, arm yourself with a programme of what needs to be done, and apply the methods of struggle advocated by the Socialist Party, you can win.
The collective refusal to move was a resolute assertion of the right to stay in your own home, indicating to supporters and enemies alike that this was a fight to the finish.
Butterfields showed it is crucial for tenants to get organised - across your estate, housing association, geographical area or sector, in residents' associations and renters' unions.
Setting up a tenants' association, with an elected committee and officers, was essential - no matter how rudimentary it was, how stuttering and difficult for those taking on these roles for the first time. It meant tactics and organisation were discussed and agreed by those facing eviction.
Outsiders advised and supported, but it was made clear from the start that while people from outside can help, they can't do it on behalf of the tenants.
This fight also had the potential to escalate if the threat of mass evictions was carried through. We didn't want to have to go there, but if the authorities and the bailiffs did go house to house, we in the Socialist Party and the wider campaign would have organised physical defence against eviction.
We would have appealed to the community and trade unions to come to tenants' defence and block the bailiffs, as we did successfully during the campaign of mass non-payment of Margaret Thatcher's hated 'poll tax'.
So turning outwards - making links with the local community and workers' movement - was also key. Our local trade unions helped finance much of the campaigning, and provided many of the bodies on the activities.
Finally, it's important to raise the political issues - that the only way to end endemic housing misery is through socialist policies. Mass building of council housing, democratic rent caps, rent tribunals; nationalising the land, the big builders and developers, and the banks.
Selling the Socialist newspaper on the street every week helped us explain that bigger forces are at work. As well as fighting to stay, the struggle is to end the housing crisis, and the system of capitalism that thrives on it.
Once the Butterfields struggle was won, Ade, one of the tenants, joined the Socialist Party. She had drawn political conclusions from the campaign. Ade now leads the fight to save the Harmony Hall community centre in Waltham Forest, reinforcing the old workers' movement adage: each one teach one.
Butterfields won't budge!
Ade Wallace, Butterfields tenant and Waltham Forest Socialist Party
There is a surprise on my doormat. A notice to quit the flat I have called my home for the past 16 years from the new landlord. It's January 2016 and I have two months to leave.
I'm resigned to it. At the age of 46 what can I do? I am powerless. The rental market is out of all proportion, the coined phrase of 'affordable housing' is in reality unaffordable to the masses. No council housing stock - well, only if you want to relocate far away from family and places of work.
A note is put through my door. A meeting of residents. It's not just me...
Momentum builds, a tenants' association is formed. We need a clear message. A cup of tea and biscuits gets us thinking, and we have it! It is simple but strong: "Butterfields won't budge"
The posters go up in our windows. We are organised and begin to peel back the layers of our situation. Unbeknown to us, Glasspool, a charity and our previous landlord, sold the flats without any notice to two brothers who received a loan from the publicly owned bank RBS.
Ironically, the rental income from the flats had been used by Glasspool to help disadvantaged people who would apply for help. They had now put 63 households in a perilous situation.
Our local MP was sympathetic but merely suggested that we push for compensation, as at least that would help us to put down a deposit on another privately rented property. But we made it clear that was not good enough...
The campaign has been running for ten long months. We have been through highs and lows, people working away behind the scenes. It's Saturday and there is a knock at the door. Smiling faces, cheering, we have done it, Dolphin Living agrees to purchase all our flats. We have done the seemingly impossible.
How did we pull it off? We had experienced, encouraging forces behind us, who believed and educated us to believe. Who made us realise that together we are a force and can bring about change. Through pressure, and that belief, we changed the position we were in.
I've learnt the process. You organise, and you build. Together we can fight capitalism. You cannot sit back and just take it. You alone may feel powerless, but the collective can have strength and bring about change in the face of adversity.
Three years on, I am now involved in other campaigns, and a member of the Socialist Party. I will be forever thankful for their involvement and belief.
Margaret, Butterfields tenant
I was there from the start. When we received letters from the new landlords in January to be out by Easter, I was so frightened.
My neighbour suggested getting in touch with Nancy Taaffe from Waltham Forest Socialist Party. I phoned Nancy and she invited us to a meeting of the Waltham Forest Housing Network, part of the local trade union council. About six or seven of us went along. That was the start.
I never thought we had a chance of defeating landlords, but these campaigners were all so positive! And it was the same throughout. I would go to meetings at the lamppost, often feeling uncertain. Then we would talk about what to do. It was great.
We did loads of things. First the media turned up. I thought ITV was good; the BBC was not very positive, but at least our story got out there.
I think the first action was lobbying the auction at a posh hotel in Park Lane, where one of the flats - where a tenant was still living - was a number on the auction sheet. Our campaigners got thrown out!
We did so much. I remember walking along our high street in a noisy demo. Also picketing a restaurant which was owned by the landlord...
Even though we have new landlords, Dolphin, which have done some repairs, they also increase the rent every year (although keeping to the percentage promised). They have sold off more flats than we expected; nevertheless, we are still here.
We know victories don't last forever. Although the tenants association is still there, I think we probably need to revitalise it...
I have been with Socialist Party campaigners to Newham to tell renters there about the Butterfields experience. They were One Housing tenants given notice of a huge rent hike, and they too eventually won.
I've also been to Rochester to talk with tenants facing eviction. And of course, I have been to the Socialist Party's annual Socialism event (see front page) ever since - and to many Socialist Party social occasions - where we've enjoyed the talk, and the dancing. Yes, 2016 was a year to remember!
Nicole, Butterfields tenant
I haven't reflected on the Butterfields events in some time. I had to move not long before the end of the campaign, as my flat-share friend had moved out and it was impossible to pay the rent on my own.
However, even after three years, I still feel so angry at the people who were prepared to evict a street full of families. The arrogant capitalists who I never got to speak to; the callous estate agents cashing in on the misfortunes of ordinary people. I just think they're beyond words - even though they all eventually gave in to us...
Sylvie, Butterfields tenant
I was out campaigning from the start! I got interviewed by the radio. I petitioned, lobbied and spoke on several occasions about our predicament, and soon became chair of the tenants and residents association.
I always give praise where praise is due, but one thing's for sure - we couldn't have achieved what we did without the Socialist Party. They were always fighting for us. They never gave up. They were so dedicated.
Karen sadly passed away one year ago, but we still remember her with great affection.
Karen and her family had lived in her flat for so long that she was protected from a no-fault eviction by previous legislation. However, this didn't stop her getting involved in all the campaign activities...
She will be remembered for her bravery in confronting estate agents who tried to sell the empty flat above her. She would turn up the TV as loud as possible when there was a viewing. Unsurprisingly, no offers came in for that flat!
Debbie, Butterfields tenant
I have lived on the estate for over 50 years with my mum, on part of the estate which had been sold off to a different landlord - but that didn't stop me joining in. I would be there under the lamppost at the meetings as often as anyone, offering to do this and that.
I had been involved in the campaign to save our cinema, so knew how important it was for everyone to stick together and fight, and also knew that 'people power' can win the battles as we did with the iconic Walthamstow cinema.
Sadly, I lost my mum a few weeks before the Butterfields victory, but I think she would have been very proud of the outcome. I later found myself in a difficult position, as although I had lived in the flat with my mum for over 50 years, the tenancy was in my mum's name and only she was classed as the protected tenant under the Rent Act of 1977.
My mum did try to get my name officially put on the rent card in my teens, which was about the time the Rent Act came into force. But that was refused even though it was known I had always lived there.
After losing my mum, the landlord wanted to hike up my rent big time. It was going to be a struggle to pay the rent as it stood, now finding myself on my own and working for a local company that did not pay well. I was still grieving for my mum and knew I needed help and support, so got in touch with Socialist Party members, and they helped me enormously, for which I will always be truly grateful...
- Friends made, campaigners forged, Labour leaders won over - read the full comments from Butterfields tenants at socialistparty.org.uk
In The Socialist 30 October 2019:
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