An interview with Jo Hiley, ACORN and Labour activist in Sheffield
Why get involved with ACORN?
I’ve been involved with ACORN since arriving in Sheffield in late 2017. I knew they were proactively organising at a local level with something of a left analysis, and wanted to get a sense of how that was working. By the time I ran for chair last year, ACORN was at an interesting point in its UK life; following the 2019 general election result it was considering its role as a vehicle for radical change at the national level. It had also rapidly expanded its number of branches and started looking at issues beyond the tenants’ organising that it initially became known for. Having been founded as a ‘community union’, early listening work demonstrated how important tenant and housing rights were for the UK working class, which led to a focus on that, but there had always been the intention to link that work to broader issues rather than remaining a single-issue organisation. I was really keen to be involved in that process.
How has that linking to broader political issues been going?
I think that remains to be seen; the shift is still ongoing. ACORN recently passed a ‘national platform’, which is exciting because it’s the first time that they have done anything like that. It includes policy stances that go from workers’ control to housing and the climate emergency. Crucially, members can vote for changes via a national conference. The question this raises for the organisation is to what extent ACORN creates internal space for political discussion and debate; something that many founding members and staff view as obstructive to a focus on direct action.
Many of the early moves towards non-housing issues have come directly from community listening exercises, such as a campaign for local bus ownership, or traffic-calming on a particular street. Moving forward, it’s unclear how listening and political reflections will interact: for example, one big listening exercise I took part in on a Sheffield estate brought up fears around safety and crime. Without a firm analysis of institutions like the police, there’s a risk of taking action in a regressive direction.
ACORN UK is heavily influenced by the work of Saul Alinsky, who is often associated with approaching organising as an end in itself, or the belief that identifying any issue that local people care about and organising around it is inherently radical and good. Since Alinsky’s most influential book was partly intended as a disavowal of communism, we need to be wary of where that takes us.
Another potential risk of this approach is that you wind up focusing on things like pedestrian crossings – which might be appreciated by the community but at the cost of losing a radical purpose.
What is the significance of Acorn and tenants' organisation for women?
I think that in terms of getting women involved in political organising, ACORN shows a lot of potential, particularly given it often takes housing as a starting point. Working-class women are massively disproportionately affected by housing issues – not only because they earn less through the gender pay gap; but they are much more likely to be in social housing, to have sole caring responsibilities, to spend longer at home. Women’s refuges also continue to be shut, and there are an increasing number of stories coming out along the lines of the ‘sex for rent’ scandal that ACORN uncovered a few years ago.
I have experience of being on a council house waiting list as a child with a single parent - and growing up in the countryside, the lack of investment in housing meant that we had to move 20 miles away from my other parent and from my school. That led to the usual trap where you have to spend more money and time on transport to keep your life going.
One time I was doorknocking in Sheffield and there was a single mother with a kid who was disabled, and the council had put him in a flat with no step-free access or storage space for his wheelchair, making him effectively housebound and obliging his mother to spend lots of time at home looking after him. The vast majority of doorstep stories I’ve heard along those lines have come from women, usually women without support from a partner.
The point is, it’s a really good issue to start with if you want to build the involvement of working-class women in politics. It’s also a really good issue for connecting the issues that they are facing with wider class concerns around property ownership and exploitation.
In terms of embedding that wider political perspective within ACORN, at the grassroots level there’s often enthusiasm for thinking about what, for example, being ‘anti-landlord’ actually means. I feel encouraged that there seems to be an increase in creative approaches to making the connection between housing and wider class structures, like the Liverpool group showing films about rent strikes. With the nationwide expansion of branches we’re seeing more experimentation and more organic connections being made between learning through direct action and learning in other ways. There’s a vocal proportion of staff and national committee members who tend to discourage that sort of thing, which I think is a mistake.
In terms of recruiting and involving working-class women, ACORN are doing well. They run a lot of individual member-defence cases for women members, are alert to opportunities to develop confidence or responsibility, and encourage women to take prominent roles on committees or speaking to the press. As in many left-wing groups, where they occasionally fall down is in continuing that support once women activists have grown in confidence and become more likely to dissent, at which point assertiveness encounters less acceptance than men might enjoy.