From International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967/68, pp.4-9.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The struggle of tenants, private and Council, against high rents, overcrowding, damp, rats, harassment, eviction and bureaucratic tyranny, are among the least documented parts of the class struggle. We make here, we hope, a tentative but useful contribution on some of the many current campaigns by tenants – a collection of short reports on tenant activity from various parts of the country. There are many omissions, and we would be pleased to have reports from areas unrepresented here.
In Hackney and Islington, the campaigns concerned in the main individual problems of private tenants suffering the greatest degree of oppression; work that is usually deep rather than wide, and which breaks into a wider context only where a Rachmanite landlady provides the link. In York and Leeds, tenant associations have been created as a possible basis for future resistance to rent increases or as current complaints agencies, rather than as a reaction to immediate rent increases. The three large movements, thrown up so rapidly in Sheffield, Newcastle and Haringey, have in common only the scale of rent increases imposed. In Sheffield, a tenants’ association was created to fight rent increases, and from this base, pressure was exercised through the Trades Council, Communist Party and trade unions to give the movement impetus. In Newcastle, the tenants were already well organised in non-political community associations, and it was through these that the fight against rent increases was conducted. In Haringey, the movement was both sparked off and led by Labour Party militants, including some Councillors, and they recruited to activity various other political militants in the area, using this as the task-force to approach the tenants.
The most important experiences of the writers are yet to come. This account is no more than a preface on the various ways in which some tenants have fought the battle. Questions of how they can win their battles and maintain and develop their organisation must await future developments.
Ian Macdonald writes: Much publicity has been given to the struggle of Islington tenants against a particular landlady and an extremely bad 100 per cent Labour-controlled Council. The campaign was conducted through a local branch of CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination) and the Islington Tenants’ Association. It led to demonstrations outside the landlady’s house and the Town Hall.
The immediate origin of the De Lusignan campaign was an eviction at Liverpool Road (from one of the De Lusignan houses) of a young West Indian, Colin Young. Another tenant in the house had been in the tenants’ movement for many years, and a member of the Islington Tenants’ Association since 1952. During that period, the Islington Tenants’ Association had been militant, with contacts with neighbouring tenants’ association, in particular the St Pancras United Tenants’ Association (a militant remnant of the 1960 Council rent riots). But the 1957 Rent Act had sown the seeds of destruction for militant activity among private tenants. The law permitted, indeed, encouraged evictions. The police assisted landlords in the execution of what were their ‘legal rights,’ and this led quickly to the isolation of the Islington militants. They dropped out while the diplomatic moderates took over. Not surprisingly when reports came in to the tenants’ association (TA) of the De Lusignan affair, there was no response. Before Colin Young’s eviction, controlled tenants had had bottles of urine thrown through their windows, had their places broken into and innumerable notices to quit. One African tenant who had applied for a rent reduction had had his room ransacked, and another had had hemp planted on him. Yet those who controlled the TA were prepared to do nothing.
The remaining militants in the TA therefore had to turn to their old comrades from St Pancras UTA when the De Lusignan troubles started. The St Pancras people immediately came with a loudspeaker and van and paraded outside De Lusignan’s house. Thus, when Colin Young was being evicted, it was to St Pancras that the other tenants in the house turned. About ten of them were there in twenty minutes and the evicted man was reinstated. As a result of this, a number of people decided that in future evictions, people from Islington should be available and that all the De Lusignan tenants should be organised to prevent this kind of thing happening again. Obviously the TA could not or would not do the job. Most of the tenants involved were coloured, and at the time CARD had just started in Islington, so it was decided to organise under this umbrella, using the cooperation of the TA wherever forthcoming.
Clearly the De Lusignan struggle was not an isolated phenomenon. Nor was it the result of people ‘going into a community to organise it;’ it was organised by people already there. The tenants provided the main impetus and were backed up by outsiders, and it is illusory to think that the campaign could have been sustained solely by outsiders. The De Lusignan campaign related to previous struggles and built upon experience gained earlier. Those people who were the vehicles for the militant tradition were all class conscious. They did not say: ‘We are Council tenants and you are private tenants; our problems are different,’ nor did they ask whether tenants were coloured. There was simply an instant recognition of a common class interest, and wherever necessary, a revolutionary response: if bourgeois law would not do anything for an evicted tenant until the Town Hall opened in the morning, then to hell with it; we would do something ourselves now. In essence, this was the same kind of response that black people made in Detroit when they set about direct action slum clearance by setting fire to the slums.
What has come of the De Lusignan struggle? Negatively, I think, the experience of successfully organising De Lusignan houses has led up some blind alleys. It was thought that the experiment could be repeated with other landlords. It did not succeed. An attempt was made to organise tenants by streets. This also failed. It is like organising individual petrol stations into trade unions. Except where tenants are in large tenement blocks with one owner, private tenants cannot be systematically organised in the way that Council tenants can be. Some attempt was later made to organise Council tenants in Islington in the same broad way that De Lusignan tenants had been organised – going to the doorstep and talking about all the tenants’ individual problems at length. The result was the creation of one rather artificial association. Positively, the De Lusignan struggle has revitalised the TA. The demonstrations reverberated through the Borough. A few more people know there is an association and will turn to it. CARD as an organisation has been put directly or indirectly in touch with very many of the black people of Islington; and as a result of the local publicity, a group of all white tenants in a slum tenement block contacted CARD because they wanted to form a TA and wanted information about how to organise it. What has happened in Islington is a development essentially, of a militant working-class tradition which must be continued.
Fred Lindop writes: The tenants’ campaign was organised by a committee of the younger Young Socialists. We spent one or two evenings each week and Sunday afternoons canvassing and holding meetings in an area of high-rent slum property, predominantly West Indian. Over three months we signed up 80-90 members, established a weekly advice bureau with the help of a friendly lawyer, helped a number of tenants to get their rents reduced and one or two to get repairs done, prevented several evictions, and helped to expose the 22-year lease racket.
After the Association was set up at the first meeting, the formal connection with the Young Socialists was ended. We remained involved, but did not discuss the Association at branch meetings. The Labour Party GMC had previously passed resolutions for campaigns on housing and done nothing; this time they welcomed our initiative, while taking no notice of invitations to help.
Attempts to expand the area became more difficult, especially given increased activity in other fields. With lessened effort, membership levelled off at around a hundred. Only a small fraction of these are actively interested, except when they have a problem. Gradually the word gets around, our two or three street reps meet new people and bring cases to the advice bureau. Occasionally there is an emergency – eviction, harassment – or we can contact a Councillor, get on to officials or put tenants in touch with a lawyer. Our regular attendance is about six tenants, three black, three white. We have tried to raise the political questions without forcing them. We sell papers at the meetings, and have political speakers on aspects of the housing problem.
Bob Looker writes: Of York’s housing stock, about one third are Council houses. There is no real tradition of tenants’ associations. A major fight in the local Labour Party over proposed rent increases, a proposal to suspend the building programme, and the introduction of a rent rebate scheme stimulated interest in the prospect of a TA to represent Council tenants. Initially, it was thought, the rent increase would itself spark off a protest from the tenants, but in fact nothing happened.
Following the return of a Tory Council, a former Labour Party militant was persuaded by some of us to try and launch a TA, and in June and July, we distributed about 1,000 leaflets setting out tenant grievances and calling for the formation of an association. This door-to-door activity met with a fairly good response and the association now has over 300 members. The association is organised on the basis of street committees with street representatives responsible for collecting subs, channelling grievances, distributing literature etc. There are regular general meetings and a broadsheet is sent round to absentees telling them of matters discussed and decisions taken. There is an executive committee of eight tenants plus Publicity Officer.
No single one of the series of increases over the last few years has been substantial; this produced resignation rather than anger. The association postdates the last increases. The issue of rents does not provide an immediate focus for activity. For the moment therefore, the main emphasis is on taking up individual and amenity grievances – repairs, road safety, playing fields – and publicising successes, while preparing for a wider campaign on the whole question of housing policy. When the next rent increase comes along, the TA should be able to mount a good oppositional campaign, and put forward a serious alternative.
The bulk of the spade work of getting the association off the ground was done by relative outsiders, and while the existing organisation is now self sustaining, the work of expanding it to cover the 10,000 other Council houses in York will still require a fair bit of hard work from activists. Politically the situation is more problematic. While it seems likely that the association will be able to grow and develop as an organ for channelling tenants’ grievances and protests, it is difficult to see much political development, even though tenants discover that there is little in practice to choose between a Tory and a Labour controlled council.
Phil Evans writes: This account concerns two tenants’ associations. One covers the newest Council estates in the city; the other, perhaps the most depressed area, with miscellaneous tenures.
The estate association first gained support around the issue of defective underfloor heating. Campaigning on it soon won several hundred members. A tenant militant and a member of the local Labour Party GMC helped to pressurise the corporation through the back door; hinting at tenant candidates in the coming Council elections. The Council at last provided free convector heaters, and were nagged too into providing more telephone boxes, pavement alterations, etc. The TA has not become very political.
For the second association a tenant asked one of us in the estate association if he could help her to start one in her area. We duplkated and distributed 3,000 leaflets calling for a meeting in the local church rooms. We had no specific issues at first but at the meeting of nearly 50 people several recurring grumbles cropped up: the area contains a number of filthy derelict houses; no open space for the children to play on; dangerous roads round the school, etc. In a run-down area, owner-occupiers seem to have the same complaints as tenants, about the environment. Few anti-landlord sentiments were voiced; rents are low, and the Worst landlord is the corporation. At least most dissatisfaction is directed at a common enemy. None of the large, recently-announced Leeds rent increases affect these associations.
There are very few Communist or Labour party militants involved in an organising capacity, so that the tenants are heavily dependent upon their own resources. Basic work has still to be done, and we intend to start by publishing a Guide to Tenants, a summary of our experience in clashes with the Council, with an appendix on rents, housing policy and so on.
Nick Howard writes: With the advent of a rent rebate scheme in Sheffield as a cover for the inevitable rent increases, some nine tenants’ associations and a Sheffield federation have been formed. This activity stemmed first from involvement in the Trades and Labour Council, where a futile battle against the rent rebate scheme was fought, despite large majority votes against the Labour Councillors. On their own initiative a group of housewives on one estate had called their local councillors to hold a meeting to explain the scheme and the rent rises.
The local Communist Party leadership was trying to capitalise on the Trades and Labour Council’s paper victories by organising a Yorkshire campaign of trade councils, leading to a national campaign against rent rebate schemes. Some of us appealed instead to the YCL for active work around the estates. No help came in the early stages. From January to May only, the one estate we were in contact with was organising against increases due on 2 July. We helped canvass, duplicate, speak at meetings. However the tenants made it clear that they wished to be non-political, and feared to be tarred with the ‘Communist’ brush.
With the local elections, the CP belatedly realised that grassroots tenants’ organisation was lacking in most of Sheffield. The one association called on local trade unions to work together to beat the rent scheme. In response, Left-wing members, mainly Communist, took up the call for a City Hall mass rally. As a result of this meeting, and press publicity of the struggle during the local elections, nine associations and a Sheffield federation were soon formed. The knowledge that the CP was involved made fear of its influence almost hysterical among politically inexperienced tenants’ organisers. A witch hunt nearly took first priority. Given considerable personal anxiety, as tenants became volunteer activists – risking possible future eviction – it was correct to recommend a ‘no party polities’ clause in the associations’ constitutions. It has to be pointed out that it does not exclude politics, for the very formation of a tenants’ association is political. Most tenants are coming to realise this and the magazines that many of the associations now publish welcome relevant political analyses. The class nature of tenants’ struggle must be continually stressed, firmly but intelligently, emphasising private ownership of land, capital and building firms, and awareness will develop. The role of the political parties will become clearer as lobbies, meetings, letters, all prove futile. (The nomination of sheeplike local councillors or Harold Wilson as the villain of the piece will not advance this understanding.) When the time comes, the example of George Lansbury’s imprisonment in Poplar and the lessons of the Glasgow rent strike can be given. The need for tenant unity must be continually emphasised, and the divisive effects of rebates overcome. Whether associations should be recommended to run Council candidates, depends on the state of the local Labour Party, but most will have a go anyway. As in most areas the Right wing is firmly entrenched, a tenants’ candidate with a socialist platform would be no set back.
The movement got the increases deferred – refusal to pay the increases will now start in October.
Brian Ebbatson writes: Newcastle City Council controls 38,000 Council dwellings; in all it governs the rents of some 60,000 or more working-class adults. Over the past decade over half of these probably were members of about ten Tenants’ or Community Associations. They paid their subscriptions annually, their pools weekly, and little attention to their association in its function as a tenants’ representative body. Longbenton Community Association in composition was typical: 3,000 members (families), about 30 came to the AGM, ten took a regular interest in the affairs of the Association, five made it function from day to day; as a result its functions reflected precisely what tenants took part in – social and recreational activities. Consequently these associations were ill-prepared for the call from Newbiggin Hall Labour Party to form a tenants’ action committee to fight the proposed rent increases and rent rebate scheme in August this year. Even less were they capable of organising tenants into opposition. These deficiencies were later reflected in the degree of tenants’ willingness to fight and in the capabilities of their leadership; they ran through the whole campaign of the next eight weeks; but, limiting though they were, they did not prevent the tenants from gaining a limited victory when, at the end of September, the Council, conceding to tenants’ pressure, reduced the maximum increase from 17s 6d to 12s 6d.
The Newcastle Council Tenants’ Action Committee was formed in mid-August, forty people crammed into a small Council flat sitting-room, representing 17 organisations, 14 of which were Tenants’ or Community Associations or tenants’ committees, formed to fight the increases. They were a motley mixture; mainly Community Association leaders – some ‘social,’ others willing to fight – and ordinary tenants or angry housewives, whose first experience of political activity this turned out to be; but with an important sprinkling of political workers from trade unions, Labour Party and ex-Labour Party, and Communist Party. The campaign followed a pattern of petitioning and leafletting for local meetings, all building up to a mass meeting at the City Hall on 4 October.
This campaign – accompanied by keen local press coverage (which played an important communications role) – transformed the tenants’ associations. Tenants’ indignation coincided with the new activity of their associations, goaded into action either by the presence of the issue or the pressure of individuals; attendances at Community Halls (between 100 and 700), which would have made bingo-callers green with envy, expressed their determination to fight the Council and if necessary attempt a rent strike. Momentarily tenants’ associations showed the potentiality of becoming genuinely democratic, grass-roots working-class organisations – a potentiality demonstrated by the activity and involvement of large numbers of tenants; but constantly inhibited by the interaction of a number of factors: lack of self-confidence, failure to see the need to spread the organisation, faith in accepted ‘leaders’ and the dampening effect of many of these leaders, unwilling or incapable of taking on the responsibilities the new situation bestowed on them. Some – the social prestige-seeking Community Association leaders – either feared militant action or rationalised their inactivity by such attitudes as ‘People just won’t support you if you fight for them;’ others – Labour Party Councillors – so deeply embedded in the parish pump environment of Council politics just did not know which way to turn and eventually opted out (’It’s not part of our job’). The Action Committee embodied these weaknesses, but their effect was less harmful, because of the relatively higher concentration of militant and politically experienced elements in it. This strength enabled it to take up militant positions – though not without internal conflicts – and give positive leadership to the tenants, but conversely it would have been its weakness (i.e. unless the proportion was the same on the estates) had it been forced to carry out its threat of a rent strike.
The local Labour Parties were completely left behind in this situation (apart from Newbiggin Hall which is not affiliated to the City Labour Party); even the Communist Party was unable to break from its traditional method of activity – petitioning, with the odd recruitment, calling for ‘no polities’ and ‘unity’ from a party political platform – unable to comprehend any change from mass apathy or the need to translate widespread interest into widespread organisation.
These weeks of activity were the formative ones. The City Hall rally proved to be the climactic event; it called for a deputation to the Council and if concessions were not satisfactory, for a rent strike to be organised. The Council, rattled by the response from the tenants, but not blind to the political capital to be made out of a ‘generous’ retreat, when the Labour Minister of Housing had reaffirmed support for the full increases, accepted the deputation. Negotiations dragged on – including a fruitless joint deputation to the Minister in London – and inevitably the tenants’ militancy wavered, the organisation slowly withered and confidence waned. The Council’s final concessions took the negotiating team by surprise – and relief, for the Action Committee could by then have done little had the Council called its bluff and given nothing.
Yet it was a victory; (only the sectarian Left called it a sell-out, which demonstrated either their inability to perceive the objective limitations of the campaign or their lack of involvement in it). At most only 6,000 people were involved in actual action (i.e. at least attending a protest meeting). The campaign showed the potential (no more) of Council estate organisations and of tenants’ movements; and because it gained something it is able to maintain part of the impetus it built up. The organisational result is the continuation of the Newcastle Tenants’ Action Committee (broadened to include private tenants); the psychological effect of the victory is that those involved have the experience of a struggle behind them that has demonstrated to them their ability to make gains.
The Newcastle Tenants’ Action Committee now has the task of building up its organisation and its basis in the associations on the estates. A ‘Newcastle Tenants’ Voice’ is to appear shortly, and this can play a great part in consolidating the Committee’s position and preparing for future confrontations. In the course of the struggle, the Committee and its members have become more political. At this stage it becomes, for socialists, not so much a matter of insertion or imposition of politics but of clarification of the political issues involved (the role of land prices, cost of building materials, the loans system, the general attack on working-class standards, rent rebates and social security). But still the greatest service socialists can offer in building up a tenants’ movement is our political experience to organise for and arrive at the best tactics for each individual struggle. If we succeed and are right, the rest will follow.
Mel Norris writes: A number of continuing political organisations have provided an important context for the campaign of tenants – CND, CARD, a Vietnam Committee, Labour Parties, Young Socialists and trade unions. Over a hundred people have, at one time or another, participated in these political activities as well as being themselves tenants or being directly in contact with tenants, particularly those in the Labour or Communist parties. Haringey Communist Party has a large membership (estimated at 800), most of whom are inactive. There are three Labour Parties: Tottenham, a left wing party (Tribunite), small and politically active only at elections; Wood Green and North Tottenham, a bureaucratic Party with a large membership and again only a few activists; Hornsey, predominantly a middle-class party with a fairly large membership, good organisation and a generally Left-wing or centrist political line. Though there were approximately 13,000 tenants in Haringey, only a few thousand were organised in associations, and the political level was almost non-existent. Haringey Council consisted of 51 Labour and 19 Tory Councillors. Two of the Labour group had been expelled from the group on a previous housing controversy. The Left wing of the group varies from 6 to 15 according to the issues – the vote on the rent proposals was 30-12. What determined their position on rents was: active middle-class and ratepayers’ associations in marginal wards; little tenant association activity; the reliability of Council tenants voting Labour.
The tenants had previously been on three different rent structures before the amalgamation of the three boroughs into Haringey. The rents were now levelled off on a basis of 100 per cent of Gross Rateable Value (GRV) which meant a general levelling up. Part of this was carried out before the ‘Freeze’ was announced, and the second instalment was postponed until after the Freeze. During the Freeze a rent increase was announced raising the basis of rents to 112½ per cent of GRV, i.e. 2s 6d in the £ increase on the basic. The increases were to come into effect from 6 July 1967 with instalments in October 1967 and January 1968. A rebate scheme giving more tenants the chance of rebates was incorporated. An estimated 90 per cent of tenants were faced with increases averaging 10s-15s over the six months. £117,000 was to be raised by the increases. A former private estate of over 2,000 properties, recently purchased by the Council, had their rents (including those of previously controlled tenants) increased to the Council’s rent scheme.
The Council announced the rent increase on 31 March for 6 July. A ‘petition’ letter of Labour Party activists and officials was sent to the local press the day after the GLC elections. 28 Labour Party members signed (including 4 councillors). It appeared prominently on 20 April. The numbers made victimisation difficult. A meeting to organise a tenants’ protest movement was then called. The leaders of the only known Tenants’ Association gave their support. The meeting was held on 8 May with a large attendance (41) from tenants’ associations, Communist Party, CND etc. and decided that: a working committee be formed; a political leaflet written; a plan of canvassing and leafleting on council estates be carried out. The Haringey Action Committee for Tenants (HACT) was formed at the meeting. Plans were drawn up for mass leafleting (10,000) of Council estates; mass canvass, with petition of estates (starting in the Tottenham area); organisation of new tenants’ associations; coordination of tenants’ associations into a federation.
(Private tenants were also involved because of our attacks on high interest rates, rents and land rents. In one case a picket of HACT members outside an estate agent’s was organised in support of a Nigerian private tenant.)
The initial leaflet was distributed throughout the Borough’s estates in the third week of May. The response was enthusiastic. On two estates, tenants called their own meetings after seeing the leaflet. Mass canvassing started on several Council estates and progressed rapidly. The petition form was signed by almost all. Using Labour Party election card procedures, a full register of tenants was completed, including lists of militants, etc. HACT decided to call public meetings on estates where there were no tenants’ associations and where the preliminary work had been done. Leaflets for this were prepared and distributed first through canvass contacts and then by HACT on the eve of the meeting. Several meetings were held and well attended (60-150), The response at all meetings was very good and large collections were made to finance HACT. During June there were many tenants’ activities, some spontaneous. One tenants’ association was set up in a clearance area and campaigned against the lack of housing and bad conditions. This association affiliated to HACT though they were not yet Council tenants. By the middle of June there were 7 associations affiliated to HACT. Then the Haringey Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations was inaugurated at a meeting called with delegates from HACT and every association. This new Federation agreed with us to plan a mass lobby of the next Council meeting on 21 July and to attempt to present the petition to them. The Council wrote refusing to receive the planned deputation because of standing orders on lack of notice. At a second meeting of the Federation, four days before the Council meeting, it was agreed to carry on with the lobby and to try to force the Council to receive the petition (now 5,000 signatures). At this meeting there were 12 associations represented, including delegates from estates outside the county. The mood was militant and the resolution for carrying on with the lobby was overwhelmingly supported with only one association (the original one) abstaining. Nearly 15,000 ‘call to lobby’ leaflets were distributed within a week.
The lobby was a success, with 500-600 present, including a packed gallery (cleared after abusive language). Outside the town hall a continuous meeting was held. The Federation’s loudspeaker nearly drowned the official meeting. When eventually the Council adjourned, it had discussed little but tenants’ business. A Labour member of the Council, with the support of two Independents and two other Labour councillors moved:
The substantive motion of the last three proposals and the suspension of the necessary standing orders was carried with only 3 votes against, they being the Leader, Deputy and Whip of the Labour Group. On every vote the Labour leadership gave out threats of expulsion. At the end of the evening the leadership was completely broken and demoralised in contrast to the mood of the tenants who revelled in their psychological victory.
Following the disturbances the Wood Green party expelled the secretary of HACT on the pretext of anti-party activities. He was smeared too with alleged refusal to vote Labour for the GLC, and this ensured his expulsion. In reply to the expulsion, a protest letter was sent to the local press. The reaction from the bureaucracy was silence. By August a certain natural depression set in amongst the tenants. The campaign, despite its successes, had been too late and disorganised to stop the increases, and many associations were still insecure. The Federation was determined to regain the initiative and prepare for the next instalment of increases. They planned to produce a newsletter, hold mass local meetings, organise the unorganised and raise the issue of coordinated rent strikes.
There are now some nine associations which attend the Federation, and several thousand tenants feel themselves united. The Labour Parties, since 1964, have suffered a decline in actual and active membership. They are having trouble in finding enough candidates for the April 1968 local elections. During the whole struggle, their one constructive move was to organise two teach-ins on rents—for members only! There is growing disillusion with constitutional methods. The three constituency parties have reacted to the campaign with varying hostility. Wood Green has tried the big stick, but failed. Hornsey and Tottenham have merely deplored the activities of certain members. Council leaders added tactical error to political compromise. The Communist Party was generally inactive at first, but later participated in the meetings and canvassing.
The militancy of tenants has implications which could be just as significant in some respects as industrial action. Currently, as with industrial campaigns, tenant activity is a direct response to the complex of policies surrounding the prices and incomes policy – frozen wages face increased prices, and, in particular, increased rents, hiked upwards by the general deflationary credit policy. Yet if the two are, in part responses to the same problem (and thus, ultimately, cannot overcome the problem without uniting the two forms of activity), there are also differences. The collectivity is not ‘given’ as in a factory; it has to be created by the tenants themselves. On the other hand, tenant campaigns draw into activity not merely workers, but also their wives and families, relatives, friends and neighbours, regardless of occupation, age, skill and colour. Of course central cleavages remain to be overcome – and in particular, the gap between private and Council tenants – but in principle, tenant struggles take the class struggle from the factory to the home.
The work of most tenants’ associations can occur at three levels.
The trouble with the first level is that it is difficult to generalise and collectivise the movement. It is hard to build a large movement, though because of the intensity of the problems, support may be very loyal and very conscious. The sections above on Islington and Hackney illustrate this well. The second level has its inbuilt limitations on the extent to which consciousness or activity can be intensified. This emerges clearly in the reports from York and Leeds. The third level is the most significant and the most dangerous – for the danger of a defeat which will demoralise is great.
Sheffield, Newcastle and Haringey have all so far won some concessions. In Sheffield, the movement got the increases deferred; in Newcastle, a backdated reduction in the increases has now been conceded; in Haringey there has so far been a substantial psychological victory. But the system has now little scope for concessions of substance. Were these more than temporary tactical retreats by the enemy? If it must, it can bring the full force of the State to bear, as it did in the St Pancras rent riots, and smash the movement. The St Pancras UTA survives as a small dedicated organisation, and so does a tradition, but the demoralisation on the estates is still there today – despite hard work by the UTA, they could not get more than 150 out against this year’s substantial rises (12s), and the numbers shrank to a handful on later demonstrations. The call for a rent strike was a non starter. The most important parts of Sheffield, Newcastle and Haringey’s experience are yet to come.
No tenants’ association can afford to neglect either the individual cases or the general agitation. But it is essential also to develop collective struggles at an intermediate level for objectives which can be won, which raise political issues and above all which involve collective encroachments on the power of landlords and Councils. The collective struggle against landlords (like Rachman and De Lusignan), who operate on the margins of legality (and are therefore vulnerable) is one of these. The campaign for Council acquisition and clearance of an area, most usually a set of tenement blocks (Beaconsfield Buildings, Derby Lodge), is another. A third would be if a tenants’ association could establish the precedent of negotiating with the Council the rents of substandard accommodation. There are also numerous individual cases which are also subject to generalisation, particularly among Council tenants. Repairs for example: they should demand an order of priority for doing them, directly negotiated by and under the supervision of the tenants. A major demand which could unite those in Council housing with those in clearance areas (acquired or about to be acquired by the Council), is the question of decanting, transfers and freedom of movement.
In Camden for example, there is no priority system for who gets rehoused first from a clearance area, who gets a ground floor flat, who gets a modern flat. People in old Council blocks, often without baths and inferior to private housing around, are in ghettos from which there is rarely an escape. People in Council-acquired property can live for years in a house due for demolition, only to be moved to another in similar condition when the first comes down. There is scope for every kind of arbitrariness and race and class prejudice on the part of officials in the housing department. Council tenants often have less freedom of movement than a private tenant would have, as no attempts are made to arrange transfers. Tenants’ associations are constantly taking up such problems individually (and winning them). They should put forward general demands for changes in the administration of the housing department and for themselves to be recognised as negotiating bodies for such purposes (with access to files etc).
These kind of issues raise questions of control. Some of them could surely be won. Others would too drastically challenge bureaucratic prerogatives. They involve collectivising what are at present private problems and tragedies (often much more resented than rising rents). Yet these may also be ways of building an organisation that is solid both in the width of its support, the duration of its strength and the level of its understanding and involvement. Out of such organisations must develop a nationwide movement for municipalisation under tenants’ control.
Last updated on 28.12.2007