Clay Cross, 1972-3: When a Labour council defied the Tories

Submitted by AWL on 2 August, 2010 - 11:52

In 1972, the Tory government told local councils to implement the “Housing Finance Act”, designed to claw in a bit of extra money by increasing council tenant's rents. The context was in some ways similar to that of today – an aggressively pro-profit, anti-worker Tory government seeking to make working-class people pay for economic instability created by capitalism itself.

There was significant working-class resistance to the Act, with several Labour councils initially stating that they would refuse to implement it. We reproduce below articles from Workers' Fight (the paper of the forerunner of Workers' Liberty) from November 1973 which tell the story of two of those councils – Clay Cross in Derbyshire and Bolton in Lancashire.

We believe they contain important lessons both in how Labour councils can be pressured to resist Tory cuts, and also in how they can betray working-class communities. This article on the same topic, from Socialist Register, may also be of interest.

From Workers' Fight No.36, 17-30 November 1973

Clay Cross did not implement the act...

For well over a year and a half now the 'rent rebel' councillors of Clay Cross have been holding out against the attempts of the Tory government to bludgeon and force them into implementing the so-called “Fair Rent” Act.

The defiant stand of the eleven councillors has been an oasis in the desert of capitulation to this attack on the working class. Labour council after Labour council up and down the country gave in when the pressure became too great – and many did not even bother to put up a token resistance.

Despite the fact that the councillors were only carrying out official Labour Party, the Party refused to back them and they were left to fight the Tories more or less on their own – though help and support on an unofficial level has come from other tenants and from the working class movement.

The stand that Clay Cross has taken, though apparently quite isolated, has had its impact on whole sections of the working class. Even the Labour Party has been forced by rank and file pressure to declare support for the eleven councillors. At the last Labour Party conference a whole string of resolutions was put through criticising the NEC for their position on Clay Cross. Under such pressure even the sell-out merchants of the Executive were forced to put on the appearance of supporting the Councillors.

But as a measure of how much, or how little, the Labour Party NEC actually intend to support Clay Cross, it has only to be noted that they are refusing to put up a fighting fund for the rebel councillors. As usual, paper support costs nothing and at least gives the impression that something is being done.

Now the Tories have admitted defeat in their attempt to bully and threaten the Council into implementing the Housing Finance Act. Some 5 weeks ago, a Housing Commissioner was sent in to 'take over'. Many other councils, after an initial refusal to implement, caved in when threatened with the Housing Commissioner. But, as GEORDIE BARCLAY found out when he went to Clay Cross to talk to one of the eleven, Cllr. DAVE NUTTALL , the Housing Commissioner is in fact nothing like the unbeatable figure so feared by such fainthearts, What Clay Cross has shown in the last few weeks is that if you are determined to fight, then there are ways around each new obstacle.

Despite the fact that a fair amoumt of publicity was expended on the arrival of the Housing Commissioner (the capitalist press having previously said little or nothing about the struggle at Clay Cross), his arrival has made no difference to the functioning of the Council and has not affected at all their determination to continue to fight the Rent Act.

Nuttall was adamant about this. The Commissioner had been refused all facilities, and Nuttall thought this, for a start, would make his job impossible. “He can hardly do the job from Henley on Thames” (where he has an office now). Under no circumstances would the Commissioner be given an office, a phone, staff or any facilities or help in Clay Cross. As far as the council is concerned, the only thing that the Commissioner can do is to look at the books, as these are public property open to anyone who wishes to look at them.

When the Housing Commissioner arrived, one of the first things he was reported to have said was that “lots of tenants were paying more rent than they need to because some of them could claim rent rebates.” But Nuttall told me he had an idea where these figures came from. The Commissioner had only been in Clay Cross about 10 minutes when he made this statement.

“Not only could he not have had time to look at the rent records, but he certainly couldn't have known the incomes of the tenants - which is necessary to calculate rebates under the Housing Finance Act. The man is either a genius or a complete bluffer. If he had taken time to look at the rents he would have found that the average rent is £1.50: at this level of rent, only a very tiny number of people could qualify for a rebate”.

Nuttall thought that in any case the councillors had a simple answer to these splitting tactics - "as the Housing Commissioner thinks our rents are too high for lots of tenants, we are seriously considering giving all tenants a decrease. That should keep the Commissioner happy and no doubt it will please out tenants."

Could the council be bypassed? I asked what would happen if the Commissioner instructed the rent collectors to collect the increase? Nuttall emphasised that the rent collectors are council employees and would be instructed by the council to collect only the rent which the council decided.

The council is still being fully supported by the mass of tenants: in the recent total rent strike called by the councillors, 84% paid no rent at all. During the strike, street committees were set up, with attendance of 30-70 people per street. The Housing Commissioner, a Mr. Patrick Hillington, has a pension of £5,000 a year, and on top of that, for each day he attends at Clay Cross, he gets £40. This must make him one of the highest paid robbers in history – with the possible exception of Sir John Donaldson of the NIRC. But Nuttall observed that the Tories must think it worthwhile “seeing as the total amount of rent owing (according to the Commissioner) is now about £91,000 - about £90 per tenant”.

Nuttall thinks that the situation in Clay Cross could easily have been avoided "because if other local authorities, even a minute number like 6 or 7 and one or two big boroughs, had refused to implement, the Tory government would have been in real trouble because the Housing Finance Act would have become a non-entity.”

And so, it seems, would the pay laws if everyone followed the example of Clay Cross. The council has just given its employees a rise of between £3.50 and 5 a week. “We're treating the Pay Board in exactly the same way as the Housing Finance Act.”

I wondered how the strain of being up against the Tory system was affecting the Councillors. Each faces a Surcharge of around £7,000 - a tidy sum for these 11 working people - and the prospect of being banned from future office. But Dave Nuttall seemed quite unconcerned. Would he try to pay the fine? "Don’t be bloody silly Geordie - I’ve got no money". Did he fear going to jail? “No. I’ve got too much faith in the trade union movement for any fear on that score. Besides, I doubt whether the Tories would risk trying to jail us - they haven't yet forgotten the Pentonville Five and are hardly going to want a Clay Cross 11”.

So, the message coming from this north Derbyshire village is that the fight goes on – fines, Commissioners or whatever. If Dave Nuttall is anything to go by, the leaders of this fight are in 11
relaxed and confident mood. Their slogan is as true today as it was at the start - WE WILL NOT IMPLEMPENT THE RENT ACT!

...Bolton's Labour council did

The rent strike in Bolton is now 12 months old, and the handful of tenants who are still refusing to pay the “Fair Rent” increase are more than £40 in arrears. What happened during the course of those 12 months is fairly typical of what happened up and down the country, and is worth looking at in some detail. Prior to last October, only one estate in the town was organised. Even this was difficult enough to achieve, as local Labour councillors were loudly boasting that they would go to jail rather than implement the Act, and therefore the town had no need of Tenants Associations. Labour in Bolton came to power very largely on the strength of these boasts, yet they backed dowm at the last minute with all the other Labour councils, leaving the tenants only two or three weeks in which to organise the other estates. By October, after an intensive campaign of marches, petitions and rebate form burning, seven tenants associations were operating and more than five hundred tenants (by official figures) withheld the rent increase.

Many Labour councillors reacted immediately by saying that they could not support public “lawbreaking”, and the Labour council as a whole declared their intention of “he1ping” Bolton’s tenants by “lessening the effects of Fair Rents.” They appealed for a special dispensation and succeeded in getting the original £1 a week increase reduced to 75p, which they then treated as an average increase, keeping some increases at £1 and reducing others to as little 20p, with a whole range of different levels in between. The immediate effect of this was to split the tenants movement in half, dividing the tenants in newer property, paying the big increases, from the ones in older property, whose increase was now reduced.

Next came an intensive “You may be eligible for a rent rebate” campaign which split us up even further - those getting rebates and those paying full rent. By Christmas the numbers had dwindled to around 150. Then came the Counci1’s Provisional Fair Rent Assessments and a public campaign by the Labour Party for tenants to “appeal” against their particular assessment. The Tenants Associations managed to fight off support for this manoeuvre within their own ranks, but some damage had been done; and when the predictably low assessments were published the rent strike dwindled even further as many tenants mistook the provisional assessment (set by the council) for the actual Fair Rent (yet to be assessed by the Government's Rent Scrutiny Board).

Throughout all this period the Tenants Associations had conducted a continuous campaign, publishing leaflets and information, holding meetings and organising rent office pickets. All the major trade union branches were circularised and their offices invited to joint Trade Union-Tenants meetings. None ever came.

In fact the local secretary of the AUEW is himself a council tenant, yet at no time did he respond to appeals for solidarity action from the tenants, nor did he himself go on rent strike. An application by the Tenants Federation to join the Trades Council was greeted with the curt reply “Tenants Associations are not eligible for affiliation to the Trades Council.” By the spring, only six tenants were left on rent strike and the Authority felt strong enough to act against them. Bailiffs appeared without warning at the homes of the six tenants and furniture and other goods were confiscated to pay off the arrears.

The bailiffs did their job enthusiastically, taking far more than was needed to pay for the arrears, and in one case confiscating everything the tenant had. But even then the local officials had underestimated the fight still left in the tenants movement. Within four days a demonstration was organised and attended by 500 tenants. The case attracted TV and press coverage, and by the following week the officials backed down and the goods were returned.

At the time, Labour councillors were quick to assure tenants leaders that it was not their agitation or their demonstration that had caused the officials to back down, but the action of “sympathetic” Labour councillors behind the scenes. This of course was said in private. But at the next council meeting an altogether different story emerged. The Tories accused Labour of putting pressure on local officials. Very much rattled those very same “sympathetic” Labour councillors couldn’t deny the charge strongly enough, and announced themselves to be opposed to all rent strikes.

In fact they went even further and claimed that “had it not been for their responsible action earlier in the year the situation could have been far worse.” For once they were telling the truth.

Labour's action right from the beginning. had had the effect of stabbing the tenants’ movement in the back. The eventual outcome of their “lessening the effects of Fair Rents” will be negligible, yet its immediate result was to kill off the one chance tenants had of throwing out “Fair Rents” lock, stock and barrel. Whether tenants could have succeeded in doing this without widespread Trade Union support remains doubtful. Yet with a strong and militant tenants' movement organising effective rent strikes throughout the country, the Trade Union movement would inevitably have been drawn into the struggle whether its leaders wished it or not.

The villains of the piece emerge clearly. On the one hand the Labour Party - both locally and nationally - and on the other the trade union bureaucracy. The Tories are probably content enough to establish “Fair Rents” in principle for the moment. Their success in holding down wages reduces the immediate need to increase rents. But as long as the Act is there it represents a threat and the Tories will not hesitate to use it to increase rents to unheard of limits the moment they feel the need to do so.

The job of Tenants’ Associations should now be to form long-term links with organsations of rank and file workers with a view to breaking the monopoly of the Labour Party/TUC coalition on working class politics. Difficult as this is to do, it is now more important than launching into another series of rent strike campaigns for next October. Whilst Tenants Associations maybe effective to do this in certain areas where trade union support has already been achieved, in most areas further rent strikes will only serve to demoralise tenants even more. A start in the right direction was made in Bolton on May Day when tenants joined AUEW pickets outside the factories and striking members of Equity staged a street theatre which included a scene on Fair Rents. Much more similar action is needed before all the lost confidence can be restored and widespread rent strikes can once more be effectively campaigned for.

(By Neil Duffield
Secretary, Bolton Tenants Federation)

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