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.
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.
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.