By Isaac Rose @_isaacrose
One of the areas where there has been a noticeable policy retreat by the Labour frontbench since Starmer became leader has been housing. Early into his tenure, he provoked the ire of housing campaigners both inside and outside the Party when he appeared to row-back on Corbyn-era policy to advocate for rent cancellations for those affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.
While Shadow Housing Secretary, Thangnam Debbonaire disputed that a row-back had taken place, it was confirmed by John McDonnell that under Corbyn the policy had been to push for rent cancellations. This provoked a response from Labour members, as over 4,000 members signed an open letter pressuring the leadership to adopt a stronger line over renters rights during the pandemic. However, this was resisted, with Debbonaire arguing that a ‘cancel the rent’ policy would be both ‘regressive’ and ‘un-Labour’.
This episode served to confirm two things. First, that among the grassroots of Labour — buttressed by a vibrant and active renters movement outside the party — there is a strong understanding of the reality of an unfair housing system and an organised constituency of renters that are able to advance their interests. Second, that the relationship between this constituency and the Labour leadership has undergone a clear shift between the Corbyn and Starmer eras. Whereas under Corbyn the renters movement had a natural ally in the Leader of the Opposition; under Starmer the picture is less black and white, with Labour likely to balance renter groups alongside a range of ‘stakeholders’, including organised landlordism represented by groups like the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA).
Yet, while this has been taking place within Labour, in wider society, there has been a notable and impressive increase in the number of people and organisations committed to the fight for decent housing in the economic and social wake of the coronavirus. Some are long standing organisations such as ACORN, Living Rent and the London Renters Union (LRU), which have registered a doubling of their combined membership since March. Others are new, or relaunched, for example Tenants Union UK, refocusing as the Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU), and other tenants unions popping up across the country, such as the Hull Renters Union. We have seen also the beginnings of organisational links between tenants and trade unions, such as a recognition agreement signed between ACORN and Unite the Union earlier in the year; as well as a recent motion passed by the Manchester NEU to support renter organising.
The housing and organised renters movement is therefore a growing movement – which is the necessary, given the strength of its opposition. Ranged against it are formidable forces — in Britain, the landlord and property lobbies remain deeply embedded within the Tory Party and the entire structure of political power — including many Labour councils. It is worth anyone concerned with housing justice in this country pausing on the fact that the NRLA have over 80,000 members — outnumbering the combined membership of all the renter unions by nearly a factor of eight. The balance of forces is reflected in policy from the government — from their near-total abandonment of renters during the crisis, through to the worrying planning reforms, laid out in a recent white paper. Globally, the power of finance capital over housing remains overwhelming, as, aside from the odd bright spot such as Barcelona, the predatory financialisation continues apace.
In this context, as the year draws to a close, there is a need for strategic reflection and analysis. Building upon a debate already in train in the pages of the New Socialist, Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) and Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth (HASL), with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, have created a three part online programme across November and December. We aim to create space to consider the big questions facing our movement: discussion on tactics, strategy; the threats and opportunities coming down the line, and drawing out demands for housing moving into the future.
The first online event was on the 12th November and focused on tenants unions, asking: ‘Is there Power in a Tenants Union?’ Challenges immediately facing the renters movement are the looming eviction crisis and homelessness surge. But in the long-term, it must tackle questions of organisational scalability, which models for organising are most effective, and — more broadly — whether tenants unions can ever be a vehicle for wider social transformation. The event will include speakers from ACORN, HASL, LRU, the Dorchester Court Tenants Union and the Community Action Tenants Union, Ireland (CATU) and can be watched again here. The contribution of Aaron Downey from CATU can also be read in blog form, here.
The second online event is on the 3rd December — this Thursday — and focuses on housing financialisation and big capital in the context of the pandemic. We ask, ‘Who Profits from the Crisis?’ The pandemic has been an opportunity for capital and large corporations to expand their control over housing. This process has been termed as ‘housing grabs’ and it is starkly apparently that this is a racialised process. We have seen the disproportionate and systematic exposure of working-class communities of colour to unemployment, unsafe jobs, eviction, homelessness, displacement, and wealth loss.
With our panel of speakers, we will explore these dynamics. Drawing on recent research published about the situation in Los Angeles, we will broaden the perspective to include the UK; consider whether the pandemic has accelerated processes of financialisation; and ask: what must our response as a movement be?
The panel will include, Desiree Fields an urban geographer based at Berkley, Nigel de Noronha a geographer at University of Nottingham, Terra Graziani an LA based research and tenants rights activist and co-director of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Joel Mantano and Pamela Stephens, both doctoral student in Urban Planning at UCLA.
Our final event will put aside the moderate demands around housing, and look towards the abolition of the landlord-tenant relationship and ‘A World without Rent’. The pandemic has exposed the extent to which landlords and other rentier interests have their grip over our economy. Categorising landlords into good, bad and rogue, occludes the fact that at the heart of landlordism is a basic exploitation. But how do we transcend from our current reality, and what strategic interventions can the housing movement make now in shifting the political landscape — away from the current model that empowers developer and rentier interests?
Our packed panel will include Beth Redmond and Gordon Maloney, organisers at GMTU and Living Rent respectively; respected new economy thinker Christine Berry, NEU Manchester Vice-President Vik Chechi-Riberio, Rose Lenehan from the LA Tenants Union and finally John McDonnell, whose recent policy programme ‘Claim the Future’ has outlined the need to tackle landlordism. This event will also be the launch of GMHA’s forthcoming educational pamphlet, ‘The Myth of the Good Landlord’ based on an article earlier this year by ACORN Liverpool activist Tom Lavin.
These discussions come at a critical time. We look forward to welcoming not only organisers from across the housing and labour movements, but those who wish to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the crisis we find ourselves in. Political education is essential to the construction of a fighting housing movement, one that will defend and extend the human right to housing. Housing is a universal necessity of life and the housing question sits at the heart of the radical change our moment demands.
Registration: Please register for the event via eventbrite, attendees will be emailed the zoom details to join the event. The event is free but for those who are able a solidarity donation is possible.
Who Profits From the Crisis?
Thursday 3rd December 2020 7pm-8:30pm .Register here
A World Without Landlords
Thursday 10th December, 6pm-7.30pm Register here
Isaac Rose is a coordinator of Greater Manchester Housing Action and editor of their online platform.
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