Struggles, but not yet a movement: Response to Graham Campbell

Ruth Lorimer responds to Graham Campbell‘s article ‘The Assault on London Housing Rights,’ arguing the current struggles need to be expanded and deepened to see real results.

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Graham has raised some important points in his article ‘The Assault on London Housing Rights’, but there are a few assertions I disagree with and would like to draw out further.

It is true that the housing crisis in London has become much more pronounced in recent years, and people are more desperate. But this is not what makes a mass movement. We need to be careful not to assume that the depth of the crisis will inevitably lead to resistance. I am glad to see some great housing campaigns emerging, and even some victories, but I think it’s important to be honest about the stage we are at, so that we make the right choices about how to go forward.

There are a growing number of militant campaigns which are beginning to link up in loose networks across London. These campaigns vary in political character and in their tactics from veteran squatters (like the people involved in the Aylesbury occupation) to more community focused campaigns led by busy mums (like the Guinness Trust campaign). The campaigns are mostly very local in that they target the offending landlord, which in many cases is the local authority. This can make them extremely effective, as in the Focus E15 mums campaign – the occupiers were relentlessly focused on shaming Newham council and the mayor Robin Wales into action, eventually securing a promise that 40 homeless families would be housed in the empty homes on the Carpenters Estate.

But this localism also makes it hard to build a mass movement across the city. There is growing recognition that this is what we need, but we are still in the early stages of building the links and political agreement for this to happen. The March for Homes on 31 January brought together an impressive array of organisations and individuals – there are over 50 groups listed as sponsors on the website – and about 5,000 people joined the protest, but it isn’t clear (to me) that many were mobilised outside the existing local campaigns and activist left.

I do agree that there is great potential to unite these campaigns and mobilise people to defend housing, but I think it will take some political decisions as well as just throwing all our resources at it. Firstly we need to find a way to overcome the limitations of the localism of existing campaigns while keeping their grassroots character, because any truly mass campaign will probably have to target the government at the national, or at least the London-wide level. This will mean going on the offensive about the right to housing and the social cleansing of London, the promotion of London as a tax haven for the super rich and the erosion of democratic rights in the city.

I also think that to turn this into a mass movement it would have to involve a broad coalition which included the squatters and the families, but it would have to also include people on higher incomes who are getting ripped off by private landlords, and just about anyone with an interest in stopping London turning onto one big gated community – including the artists and middle classes who are often seen as the harbingers of gentrification. By opening up the movement’s aims to include the right to public space, the right to protest, and in general the right to visibly and actively participate in city life, we could broaden out the people who are motivated to get involved.

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Later in his article, Graham argues that the destruction of social housing contributes to the destruction of working class solidarity. I think he is right about this to an extent, but that it is a potentially fatalistic way of viewing things. On the Guinness Trust estate, the campaign to stop the evictions is made up of council tenants, ASTs, leaseholders and property guardians – proving that having a common landlord isn’t necessary for community solidarity. But more importantly, working class solidarity is forged through collective struggle – not necessarily from being neighbours. Living in a big city, most people have social networks that are built through work, education, family and all sorts of other things – including political campaigns that operate at a city-wide level.

Most working class people’s experience of London involves at least some level of political awareness, as we live in the place where, for the most part, the country’s political battles are fought out (symbolically at least). Therefore, I agree that we need to fight against anything that weakens working class solidarity, but I think that solidarity can be found, and built, through a political movement to reclaim the city itself – the whole lot, not just the council estates.
I’m writing this in the hope that it will generate a bit of debate about the way forward for campaigns around housing, and would welcome Graham’s, and others’ comments.

There are 5 comments

  1. Adam

    I agree with Ruth’s analysis, and I think it’s right to not just concentrate on estates, broader campaigns are needed. Although DCH have a lot of experience, and some excellent housing activists, and defending council housing should be pretty high on any socialists list.

    But housing is a complicated issue… I’m part of an anti bedroom tax campaign, and also on our estates TRA and regeneration steering group. We want the council to build on the empty land on our estate. But what they want to build is another matter, some years ago plans were for 370 homes to be built, those plans went into the long grass for a couple of years and when they came out it’s now 450 homes! Something must give, either the massing of the blocks ie higher, or the size of the properties ie smaller. It’s also a problem that despite the increase in numbers, the allocation for ‘afordable’ rents has been reduced significantly, whilst the allocation for public housing (on the estate), has been reduced entirely?

    Recent developments have now arisen that the council is aiming to redevelop 3 local schools paid for by building flats ontop or besides, using up valuable playing areas, and the first if these developments is suggesting a 13 storey tower block or higher, containg 1 and 2 bedroom apartments for duplex living, with views over the park, and a distinct lack of sunlight for residents living on the estate immediately behind it! This too will have zero social housing or affordable rents. There is another proposal locally a so called ‘bismess park’, which has more sq footage given over to residential than to retail. So as housing campaigners we are in the crazy possition of actually not wanting them to build more homes, as the ones proposed will seriously effect locals quality of live, and won’t even help with access to affordable housing.

    So between, the school parents, benefit justice activists, TRAs (at least 3 estates to be effected by all these developments), and other annoyed residents, the difficulties of pulling together a cohesive campaign are very prominent in my mind right now.

    Wish us luck, first meeting in this tentative alliance is set for next week.

  2. Shanice Octavia McBean

    Sorry to caricature, but I have to say, I didn’t think the thing missing from the Guinness trust occupation was… hipsters.

    There are so many useful ways of generalizing the politics of housing campaigns to a broader struggle to reclaim the city that includes thus far excluded demographics. For example, the introduction of operation Shield in Haringey, which gives the police even more powers than stop and search to remove young black people from the streets. The forced eviction of sex workers in Soho. The past few years escalation of tactics from police to quell protests: evictions of occupations, mass arrests, kettling, bail conditions etc. These are the kind of people we need to see as natural allies to housing struggles, and they’re the working class people we can build links with to counteract the atomisation that breaking up communities causes.

    This is to be contrasted to lamenting the exclusion of middle class hipsters whose material experience of gentrification and the changing spaces in London allies them to gentrification, as opposed to allying them against it. The thing about these people is they can afford to live in a London where the inner cities are a gated middle class hothouses, and that’s because it’s *designed* for them. This isn’t to say they’re the ‘enemies’, but it is to say whether are not they are mobilised I don’t think should be the concern of the housing movement, at all.

  3. Ruth Lorimer

    Shanice – I find myself in the unusual position of arguing in defence of hipsters!

    I think it *is* a caricature to divide the city into ‘hipsters’ and the working class. For a start, gentrification isn’t caused by hipsters choosing to move into an area and make it unaffordable for poorer people. It’s caused by greedy landlords, by the crazy housing market, the banks making huge profits from mortgages, and the state wanting to attract investment rather than create decent places for people to live in. Most hipsters are paying rent through the nose just like anybody else.

    Secondly, inner London is at risk of a far worse fate than a plague of open air cinemas in abandoned car parks. The city is being sold off in huge chunks to developers to be turned into a gated community for the super rich – not the hipsters, but the actual 1%.

    Thirdly, hipsters aren’t a separate class. I’m not trying to be pedantic, but even creative types who sit in cafes with their Macs all day are being exploited by some capitalist somewhere. In economic terms, lots of them are working class. They are capable of choosing to ally themselves with the oppressed and exploited. They are quite likely to be screwed over by their boss (ever wonder how much money companies save by having all their designers work from coffee shops…?). We shouldn’t write them *all* off.

    But I digress… my article wasn’t about hipsters. The point I was making was that we need to find a way of building a mass movement where people are motivated to get involved not on the basis of their own personal position within the housing market, but on a broader basis of wanting to defend the city as a place normal people can live, because simply linking together lots of small struggles, even if they are all led by brilliant and inspiring working class and oppressed people, will not by itself create a mass movement – first we need lots and lots more people.

    To get there we need to come up with demands that lots of people will get behind – and these have to be either national or city-wide to be effective and coherent. I absolutely agree that any such movement should be led, and probably will be led, by militant working class people. But the version of working class I mean includes Soho sex workers, young black people who get harassed by the police, the Guinness Trust campaigners, and also ‘middle class’ families, artists, homeowners, and everyone in between – including hipsters.

  4. Adam DC

    I would add to your first paragraph Ruth, money grabbing councils. It’d be a pretty pathetic revolution if the class couldn’t drag artists with it!

  5. Brian Parkin

    Hipsters? Only if they attend compulsory dress-sense sessions! But more seriously Ruth’s idea of winning a city in the sense of the popular commandeering of public space in which cultural opportunities can explode and in the process dealienate (if there is such a word) and liberate people has to be part of the revolutionary ‘vision thing’ that can form the essence of a pre-revolutionary challenge to capitalism and its expropriation of public space. And for that, we will need artists. And poets.

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