A resistance movement is growing against the unfair ‘under-occupancy’ penalty. It may even become the poll tax of its day
Anger about the distressing impact of coalition austerity is gaining expression, focus and pace in the UK. There have been some marches, but NHS and welfare cuts were not met with mobs surrounding Downing Street brandishing pitchforks and flaming torches. I suspect the catalyst for mass protest might be the so-called “bedroom tax“.
Do you remember the poll tax? It was a turning point in public anger at Thatcher’s Tories. The hated community charge forced the unemployed to pay a contribution, and was based on the electoral register, but met with boycotts and riots. Resistance was so strong that it turned even Margaret Thatcher’s mindset: the poll tax was replaced by the current council tax.
The bedroom tax bomb hits in April, and tenants in social housing with so-called “spare rooms” are living in fear. Despite the fact that a three-bedroom housing association flat can be cheaper than a one-bed in the private sector, the architect of this fresh misery, welfare minister, Lord Freud – who lives with his wife in an eight-bedroom country mansion – decided tenants must move, or have money deducted from their housing benefit. One-bedroom flats are rare in the social sector, and claimants, especially those with children, never top a private landlord’s wishlist.
Among the families who will be hit by the bedroom tax – whose official title is the “under-occupancy” penalty – are those whose children are serving in the armed forces who may leave their bedroom empty for more than 13 weeks a year while they are on duty – in Afghanistan, say. Their housing benefit will be docked. Likewise, a father separated from his partner and children who has a spare bedroom where his children stay alternative weekends will lose payment for this “extra” room.
Lord Freud told a woman on a Radio 5 Live phone-in whose son may serve in the armed forces that she should get in a lodger while he was away (even though she replied this is against the rules of her housing association) and he recommended a dad of three put his kids on a sofa bed when they stay.
The disturbing prospect of bailiffs arriving to turn vulnerable tenants out on to the street is looming. But politicians underestimate the power of renters at their peril, as was discovered during the first world war. In the chaotic early days of conflict, greedy, opportunistic Glaswegian landlords tried to increase rents. Initially, tenants agreed to pay regular costs but no increase, and landlords retaliated by callously giving them notice. The legendary women of Glasgow organised the fightback, surrounding courts or blocking roads to stop evictions, with stories of the women forcibly removing the trousers of approaching bailiffs. Rapacious landlords lost. Tenants won a rent freeze lasting for the duration of the war and six months afterwards.
Calls for resistance to the similarly egregious bedroom tax grow louder every day. What will tenants do when money is deducted from their benefits to penalise them for rooms now considered surplus to requirements? Well, they could refuse to leave, and decline to pay. Housing associations are reportedly concerned about the predicted distressing scenes, and also about losing revenue from court fees and lost rents.
Some tenants are intent on standing their ground. John Agamben of Liverpool-based Combat The Bedroom Tax, told me:
“With the right information and support, tenants will stay and fight. We need to take into account that many tenants have lived in their homes for years, some decades, and will be unlikely to give up their friends, neighbours, communities and support networks without a struggle.”
He emphasises Liverpool tenants and their tradition of defending their homes from previous attacks, such as the poll tax and the 1972 Kirkby rent strike.
The words of Red Clydeside hero, Govan schoolteacher John Maclean, resonate today. In May 1918 he was sentenced to five years in prison for anti-war and revolutionary activity, linked to the Glasgow rent strikes. In court he said: “No government is going to take from me my right to protest against wrong. I am not here as the accused, I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot.”
Well planned and properly targeted, protest might change the mind of even the most wrong-headed politician.