All the capitalist pundits, from the Financial Times to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, now agree that Britain is facing a housing crisis.
Mortgage approvals in December 2008 fell to less than a fifth of what they were 18 months ago. House repossessions almost doubled in the three months to September last year, according to the Financial Services Authority — a total of 13,161 homes repossessed in the third quarter of last year. The crisis in private sector-owner-ocuppied housing will be all the more severe because it comes on the top of the 20 years of sustandard housing and shortages which have most affected poor people in the UK.
After the Second World War the labour movement had always put pressure on governments to tackle homelessness and provide decent homes for all. Of course the reality of the government measuers were very different from the rhetoric. Slum clearances of the 50s, 60s and 70s were done without the direct participation of the communities involved; new estates were often cheaply built and poorly designed. Planners and architects’ arrogance along with political mendacity and corruption were exposed in scandal after scandal. Council tenants often found it difficult to get basic repairs done to their homes. Arguing and campaigning for the provision of local facilities was an uphill struggle.
Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party governments of the 1980s and 90s deliberately played on working-class council tenants’ feeling of powerlessness. They made propaganda for a “property-owning democracy” while destroying council-provided social housing and letting the market let rip in housing. They abolished rent controls in private housing, de-regulated mortgages and introduced the “right to buy” council housing. The Tory government deliberately used housing as an means to economically and then politically divide the working class. By promoting home ownership amongst those who could get credit they sought to win a layer of better off workers away from the politics of socialism and the labour movement.
Meanwhile the Tories pushed responsibility for housing a growing army of unemployed workers on to councils and housing associations that were systematically starved of cash. The result was homelessness on a scale unprecedented in modern Britain.
New Labour has continued to promote private ownership and private rental by the de-regulation of planning and credit. That context has been disastrous. A rise in demand for housing created an unsustainable property boom and promoted profiteering, poorer quality new build housing and fevered speculation. The government responsed to that by tinkering with the system, introducing such things as shared private/council tenure, subsidised homes for “priority” workers, mixed housing estates and most recently pledging an increase in local authority involvement providing social housing provision. The net result was just 350 council homes built in England during the last year.
Now, and it seems inevitable, the housing market has completely collapsed. Mortgages are hard to find, house-building has virtually ceased. Millions who could not afford to buy a house in the good times may soon find it impossible to pay the rent on private rental accommodation. Their only option — to go on a waiting list for social housing — joining four million other people. Meanwhile nationally hundreds of thousands of private flats stand empty.
The general response by socialist groups, the left of the Labour Party and the unions has been to call on the government to push through a massive council house building programme.
But as a stand-alone demand this is inadequate; it takes no account of how council tenants feel they have no control over the quality of the housing and enviornment they live in. It it is not accompanied by a firm strategy of how the workers movement can effectively campaign to bring more publically owned social housing about.
By contrast anarchists who have set up squatter’s rights centres have long been arguing for direct action to seize empty property from the exploiting class and convert them into homes. Some of the actions taken by these squatters have been audacious and admirable. However they deliberately abstain from making demands on the state; they distrust people in the labour movement who are inclined to make such demands.
Because of the importance attached to the liberated “space” of the squat these projects often collapse into being about living an (often precarious) lifestyle rather than thinking about how a mass working-class movement can be built out of the action.
Another approach has been taken by campaigners like the London Coalition Against Poverty who use a mixture of direct action and legal means to demand the state finds accommodation for individuals. Like the squatter’s rights centres the action is often laudable but big political questions are secondary to the main work of fighting off evictions and legal case work.
The left as a whole lacks an overall adequate political response. That is a problem because it creates a vaccuum where a lively, active and comprehensive political space should be. A vacuum that is, and more so in the future, be filled by the hate-filled falsities of the BNP who want poorly-housed white workers to blame poorly housed black, Asian and migrant workers for the housing crisis created by the various vested capitalist interests of the last thirty-odd years.
A workers’ response to this crisis is desperately needed. Fortunately history provides us with some interesting and constructive examples.
Bombing during the Second World War compounded decades of general landlord neglect and caused a housing crisis beyond the one of our own time.
At the end of the war millions lived in temporary shelters or were massively overcrowded into relatives’ homes. The Communist Party in Britain organised a large-scale a campaign by homeless families of occupations of disused army bases, holiday camps and even in one famous case a street of abandoned luxury Kensington flats.
Anarchist squatters’ movement tend to claim this action as an example of squatting; but in their sense, it was not. This was not about creating a temporary liberated space or about living a different lifestyle. The CP campaigned to regularise the occupancy of the homeless and to stop the possibility of eviction. They successfully agitated for councils to lay on facilities and utilities for these sites, while also campaigning (less successfully) for more council housing.
The CP did this exemplary campaign even though hobbled with dreadful reformist and Stalinist politics; they did however refuse to exploit the idea of mass occupations as part of revolutionary agitation.
Another more common workers’ movement response to attacks by landlords has been rent strikes.
The most famous British example was on Clydeside during the First World War. Working-class women were forced to respond to slum landlords’ attempts to exploit the fact that so many of men were mired in the slaughter of the western front. The rents on tenements were hiked up, in some cases by a third, but despite dreadful conditions the women organised and led a successful rent-strike.
Another successful council rent strike in Normanton, West Yorkshire in the 1960s was won with the help of the (then sectarian and later mad) Trotskyist Socialist Labour League which won support from the rank and file of the local labour movement.
An even more basic working-class fightback is an anti-eviction campaign. During the miners’ strikes of the 70s and 80s striking miners went without pay for months; basic solidarity and organisation meant bailiffs were forced to treat many mining communities as no-go areas. The National Coal Board could not effectively use mass evictions as a strategy against the strikes.
The series of reverses the working-class movement has suffered over the last thirty years has made these basic working-class responses seem a distant memory. However the current crisis makes it vital that the labour movement is ready to act directly and politically in support of decent homes for all.
If more and more working-class people are being forced to fight off eviction notices, bailiffs and landlords the labour movement must act in their defence. The workers movement should practically support and encourage all attempts by workers to secure homes for themselves, keeping their existing homes, and increasing the stock of social housing.
We should not dismiss squatting but champion it as a starting point for debate and wider action, whilst pressing for labour-movement involvement and for a serious political programme. To repeat, this in itself is just a basic minimum, a defensive response.
We need a long-term strategy, recognising that we need to move beyond even a revitalised broad workers movement. Ultimately socialists need to unite in an organisation, a workers’ party willing and able to make the demand for a decent home for all and workers’ control in housing, a concrete reality as part of a socialist political programme.
A campaign of direct actions such as mass occupations, rent strikes and anti-eviction battles will only be ultimately successful if integrated into a revolutionary strategy for the abolition of the entire system of private property and landlordism.