Can’t pay, won’t pay — then what?

With rent arrears, household debt and evictions all set to surge, we need the kind of resistance that killed off the Poll Tax, argues Michael Calderbank, co-editor of Red Pepper and member of Brent Central CLP.

BedroomA perfect storm is about to hit. With the Bedroom Tax, the Housing Benefit cap and the withdrawal of Council Tax support beginning to bite, and with the prospect of Universal Credit around the corner, thousands of families will increasingly find their homes have become “unaffordable” as a direct result of government policy. This is especially worrying at a time of such high employment, underemployment and poverty pay. Unless they relocate into a cheaper area — often miles away from workplaces and family or friends — or accept a move to a smaller property with the risk of serious overcrowding, more people will find they fall further into debt, get behind on their rents, face court fines or are even evicted from their homes by bailiffs and thrown into emergency housing or onto the street.

So what is to be done? The situation has certain parallels with the anti-Poll Tax struggle of the late eighties, which saw thousands of families chased through the courts for non-payment of bills, leading to fines and evictions of tenants from their homes. At that time, a section of the Labour left was able to respond — through the vehicle of local Anti-Poll Tax federations — by giving practical advice, legal representation and direct solidarity action at community level to prevent bailiffs entering properties. Through the National Federation of Anti Poll- Tax unions, community groups were linked up into a national network, which enabled people to share experience and expertise on how best to defend people from the effects of government attacks. It also helped to join up local groups of community activists to further the political fightback and advance a campaign strategy which ultimately helped to overturn Thatcher’s hated policy.

There are lessons here for today. We are beginning to see local anti-cuts groups and housing campaigns take up the need for concrete solidarity action in response to dire social circumstances. But welcome as this is, at this stage instances of direct action around housing are somewhat fragmented and taken up with immediate needs for defensive measures. While they might get covered by the local paper, the idea that each of these instances is part of a common collective fightback on a national scale has yet to really penetrate the mainstream political agenda. We have seen with UK Uncut how the presence of a central, coherent focus enables local direct action to locate itself as part of a wider political movement, in order to force a clear set of issues and demands onto the political agenda in a way that hadn’t previously seemed possible. Yet while groups like Coalition of Resistance can play a positive role in terms of general propaganda work, they have tended to operate at a certain remove from the daily experience of working class communities.

A new National Anti-Evictions Network is needed, but cannot simply be created or announced from on high. Such a structure would need to synthesise and reinforce the work of existing housing action campaigns, and maximise the involvement of all political, trade union and community groups serious about taking practical steps to defend families under attack. There need be no prior presumption about the need to work either inside, or in opposition to, Labour. At the same time, Labour councils in particular will be faced with direct choices over whether to send in bailiffs to evict families who have fallen behind on rent solely as a result of Coalition policy. Campaigners should mobilise pressure on Labour councillors to:

  • Call an immediate moratorium on all evictions from council housing resulting directly from the benefit changes.
  • Facilitate financial advice and low-cost lending through council borrowing or local credit unions.
  • Immediately introduce and enforce strict regulation of exploitative private landlords.
  • Take rent collection back “in house” and made more democratically accountable, and avoid the use of unregulated private bailiffs.

Such a network would need to draw on the expertise of people with particular experience around housing and welfare policy, legal practice, and debt advice, as well as community organisers, to work alongside people with no prior experience of ‘political’ involvement. We should not underestimate how much work this will involve. But only by demonstrating our worth at this most practical of levels can we begin to re-engage mass working class support to stop this brutal government in its tracks.

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