Monday, October 14, 2013

The Bedroom Tax and 'Mobilising Resistance Movements'

The following is the text of a speech I gave at a John Moores University seminar on 14th October 2013:

Nearly a year ago now, when the cold weather was really starting to bite, a fellow political activist told me he was leafleting in preparation for a "mass meeting" on the bedroom tax. I was a bit taken aback by his ambition. I knew the bedroom tax would be a huge issue for a lot of people, but it was the "mass" part which struck me. Of course we would have a meeting, but if it was anything like all the other open meetings on issues affecting the working class that people like us had tried to organise, it would be a handful of longstanding left activists huddled in a room too big for their numbers, making plans that might never come to pass.

But the bedroom tax was different. That much was obvious when the "mass meeting" at the Black-E really was huge. And sure, some of the usual suspects were there, but they were outnumbered by scared, and angrily eloquent people I'd never met before. They were talking about a problem affecting their own lives, but more importantly, what they themselves could do about it.

In the nine months since, the bedroom tax struggle on Merseyside has gone through many stages, and I'll go through some of them here, before saying what I think this means in terms of mobilising resistance movements against austerity attacks.

During the first few weeks after the January mass meeting, about a dozen local groups started across Merseyside, and these would be joined by many others. Posters went up in communities particularly hit by the bedroom tax, and after initial local meetings, some groups arranged to meet on a weekly basis.

Each group was different, but in the early days, the focus of many was identifying people affected by the bedroom tax, collectively visiting the surgeries of political representatives, and descending on the offices of housing associations.

These local groups soon found they wanted to organise some things together, such as demonstrations. So over the course of several weeks, a federation of anti-bedroom tax groups was formed. It was decided that each local group could send two delegates to each federation meeting.

It was at this stage that I first observed something - there was a division starting between those longstanding left activists, and the newcomers whose energy had first electrified the movement. When my local group were discussing who should be put forward as a delegate to the Federation, one woman who normally had a lot to say told me "You know those people" and "you're good at that sort of thing". I was happy to get involved with the Federation, but disturbed by the implication that inexperience should be a barrier to others taking part at that level.

As the weeks went on, I noticed that this tendency strengthened. Whereas the bedroom tax had brought over a thousand onto the streets of Bootle alone, and hundreds in Liverpool city centre, there was now the feeling that bedroom tax activism was divided between a handful of generally longstanding activists in each community - who were becoming 'experts' in the bedroom tax - and everyone else - whose support was quickly becoming passive. Of these 'experts', a show of hands at the founding Federation meeting showed that only one third were directly affected by the bedroom tax themselves.

I believed this unfortunate turnaround was to a certain extent shaped by the particular tactics which the struggle had forced on us. Local MPs and councillors professed sympathy, but promised nothing. Housing associations did the same. Marching set pieces had made everyone feel good for a while, but evictions would still be going ahead eventually, if people could not pay their bedroom tax, so affected tenants took to filling in appeals against their bedroom tax decisions, and applying for Discretionary Housing Payments.

It was absolutely the right thing to. This has been underlined by the Fife judgements and others which Joe has referred to. We can be immensely proud that no-one who has come to a bedroom tax group in time has lost their home so far. However, the sheer length of the appeals process has had an impact on the composition of those groups, and particularly the Federation, with many directly affected tenants waiting for their appeals to be processed, and leaving day-to-day organising to longstanding activists.

Over the summer, the Federation hit a decidedly rocky patch when it emerged that local fascists (one of whom is now in prison for a violent attack on antifascists and musicians) were trying to get involved with one local bedroom tax group. When that group tried to affiliate to the Federation, some antifascists tried to warn the meeting, but the Chair refused them permission to speak, and the vote was passed. As a result of this manoeuvre, fascists could potentially have attended Federation meetings and events. These fascists regularly threaten perceived enemies online, and their presence could well have had horrific repercussions. At a bare minimum, it would have effectively excluded many marginalised groups, including those who are already and unfortunately very underrepresented within 'the left'.

After a long and painful battle within the Federation, the fascist-linked group was disaffiliated, and measures have been put in place to make sure that nothing similar ever happens again. But the struggle put us off our stride for a couple of months, and directed a huge amount of energy away from uniting working class communities against the bedroom tax.

The reasons for the Chair's decision that fateful day remain unclear, but they seemed to coincide with a dislike of other longstanding left activists within the Federation. Of course, an organisational body largely made up of directly affected people would have encountered their own problems in this situation, but no-one would have had any axe to grind besides the one used to axe the bedroom tax.

Another major event in the local struggle came when a Knowsley woman was evicted from her home, and bedroom tax activists joined with neighbours to face down bailiffs intent on stealing her possessions. This has been the only instance of this type of resistance in the movement so far, and it remains in our armoury should housing associations try to evict people who are involved with any of the local groups. If this happens, that passive support within neighbourhoods will have to turn into active support, and I believe it will.

Marx wrote that working class people of all nations must unite, as they "have nothing to lose but your chains". Many working class people in this relatively wealthy country still feel like they have something to lose, and this is likely one reason why we have not yet seen much militant industrial struggle originating within the trade unions, despite huge attacks from the Coalition. But people in poor communities - often unemployed or underemployed - seem close to fulfilling Marx's description.

In a recent post on community-based organising on my Infantile Disorder blog, I described the two most particularly inspiring demos I'd been to this year:

"The first was back in February, when over a thousand people charged onto the streets of Bootle - the town with the UK's shortest life expectancy. At the time I labelled it as an "explosion of class anger", and it really seemed like the mob were keen to tear the Cabinet limb from limb. When the group's instigator failed to put forward any actions beyond - albeit furious and brilliant - A to B marches, Stand Up In Bootle disintegrated. However, a massive amount of potential was clearly there, and welfare advocates ReClaim are now doing some great community work there."

"The other was the July demo called by the anti-bedroom tax group of just one estate in Birkenhead. They marched from their street to the nearest one stop shop, where appeal forms were handed in en masse, including by a family being threatened with imminent eviction by Magenta Housing (formerly Wirral Partnership Homes). On the one hand this was an exercise in by-the-book legality, but on the other the bullishly defiant atmosphere very much indicated that any bailiffs would be in for a very hard time.

"In Bootle and the Birkenhead estate, the campaign began with someone going door to door and asking if anyone was in trouble with benefits. The fear and the anger were already there, all that was missing was a catalyst - someone to bring people together and raise the prospect of rebellion. If you dream of a new working class movement but militant workplace organising doesn't seem like an imminent prospect, doing something similar in your area is perhaps the most radical thing you could do right now."

There are many hundreds of thousands of people out there, who are ripe for becoming part of resistance movements. Often they feel completely abandoned and ignored by 'the left'. Especially amongst the young, they wouldn't have a clue what 'the left' is or was. And yet they are seeing what little they have being taken away from them. They are furious, they don't know what to do, but they know that something must be done. By bringing such people together in communities, we create the space where such movements can grow. It is these layers - in conjunction with workers facing redundancy - who could stop local authorities making even deeper cuts. Our task is urgent. As the bedroom tax and welfare cut suicides show, the building of a new working class movement is a matter of life and death for many.

At this very moment, people from Wirral bedroom tax groups and their supporters are lobbying at Wallasey Town Hall - publicly giving the council one last chance to accept their responsibilities under the Fife judgements Joe Halewood mentioned. Assuming they don't do this, Merseyside Federation of Anti-Bedroom Tax Groups is launching a new stage of our campaign, helping individuals with no pre-existing arrears to make a public statement of non-payment, based on Fife and other helpful rulings.

As a Federation, we will take whatever actions draw most positive media and public attention to those committed non-payers, with the aim of embarrassing the region's Labour councils into implementing Fife. We calculate that in the current climate, this could deliver a knockout blow to the government over this issue, and give hope to all those fighting austerity in the UK and beyond. There have been many difficulties to overcome, and victory is far from certain, but working class people are organising themselves to combat the government. I hope others can learn a lot from our movement.
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