The left and the housing crisis

Posted in david kirk's blog on Fri, 02/01/2009 - 22:24,

Arch capitalists from the Financial Times to the Council of Mortgage Lenders all now agree that we are in a housing crisis. Mortgage approvals in December have fallen to less than a 5th of what they where 18 months ago and all signs point to a mounting wave of repossessions. This crisis in home ownership has come on top of a housing crisis for the poor that has lasted 20 years. The Thatcher government and her heirs in New Labour deliberately promoted the false dreams of the “property owning democracy” while cutting all social housing to the bone and undermining the rights of tenants. The waiting list for social housing is now close to 4 million and that is before the worst effects of the credit crunch have hit. Because of the current economic crisis millions who could not afford to buy a house in the good times may soon find it impossible to pay the rent on their private rental accommodation. What is the government’s response? Last year England built around 350 council houses, while in our cities hundreds of thousands of private flats and houses stand idle waiting for buyers who cannot get mortgages.
What has the response of the workers movement been to the crisis in housing? Some motions passed in favour of council housing but in general housing has been neglected by trade unionists and socialists. By contrast the anarchists who set up squatter’s rights centres have been directly posing questions surrounding housing as are many campaigners in the charity and NGOs who use legal means to demand accommodation for individuals. But the truth is these two responses are also inadequate and do not point the way to how the power of the working class can resolve the current crisis. They avoid political questions and instead end up in the dead ends of evictions or being dragged down into endless legal case work. This vacuum of political responses is often filled by the hate filled falsities of the BNP. They seek to make poorly housed white working class people blame poorly housed black working class people for a housing crisis forced upon all workers by capitalism. A workers response to this crisis is desperately needed and socialists do not have very far to look for examples of the workers movement taking housing into the workers hands and defeating landlordism.
During the Second World War bombing 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 of organised occupations by homeless families of disused army bases, holiday camps and even in one famous case a street of abandoned luxury Kensington flats. Despite attempts by the anarchist squat movement to claim this action as an example of squatting in their sense, it was not. This was not about creating temporary liberated space or about living a different lifestyle. The CP immediately campaigned to regularise these families occupancy and get rid of the spectre 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 was able to do this even when hobbled with dreadful reformist & Stalinist politics, and probably because of this they failed to exploit the idea of mass occupations as part of revolutionary agitation.
Through-out the twentieth century there have been numerous other examples of the labour movement in Britain and abroad organising successful rent strikes, anti eviction campaigns and mass occupations (Glasgow in World War I, Normanton in the 60s and Mexico in the 90s spring to mind). These are just basic responses to the failure of capitalism to adequately house millions of people. Yet often this is divorced from the need for propaganda for the right for decent homes for all. In Britain today the workers movement is in such a weak state that the ability to carry out such actions may seem very far away, but people will be forced to fight bailiffs and landlords to secure homes for themselves. Wherever it occurs the workers movement should practically support and encourage all attempts by workers to seize homes for themselves. We should not discount direct action on housing as anarchistic lifestylism but at the same time recognise that these actions will only succeed as part of a campaign of militant political agitation for the for a decent home for all and the abolition of the entire property and renting system.

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