Better to Break the Law Than to Break the Poor: Lessons From Clay Cross

Many important lessons can be learned from the fight-back waged by the Labour councillors of Clay Cross in 1972 (Clay Cross being a small town that sits less than 20 miles south of Sheffield). Here in this town of just 10,000 people, eleven Clay Cross councillors with the support of their community, stood firm against implementing the Tories brutal Housing Finance Act. As it happens this Act proved to be “the first major attempt by the Tories to hand over social housing to the private sector.”

In stark contrast to many Labour councillors today…

“…the men and women who were elected to serve on the council [in Clay Cross] were not remote figures who did what the [council] bureaucrats told them to do, but representatives of the working people of the town who kept faith with their electors. It was as simple as that.” – David Skinner and Julia Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross (Spokesman Books, 1974)

At the time, like now, the “majority of the UK’s council housing stock was under Labour authority control.” Therefore , to “implement the act, the Tories needed Labour councils to assist by obeying the law.”  The Councillors of Clay Cross rejected such demands, and were willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who elected them.

Around the rest of the country, inspiring rent strikes shook the establishment, with one in Kirkby on Merseyside which lasted for 14 months, and another notable one being the rent strike in Dudley in the Black Country that saw the participation of 15,000 tenants.

However, Clay Cross was the only town where local councillors took a lead and then remained firm in fighting alongside tenants to the bitter end.

“The struggle in Clay Cross developed further in 1973 as the last of the other combatants fell away. There was a solidly supported six-week rent strike before focus switched to the law courts. In July, the High Court found the councillors guilty of ‘negligence and misconduct’ and fined the eleven a total of £6,985 (plus £2,000 costs).”

Writing in the Militant in October 1973, Clay Cross Councillor David Skinner commented:

“The tragedy is that, with a more determined leadership from the [Labour Party’s] National Executive Committee and the Parliamentary Labour Party, none of the rents would have been increased at all. If the leadership had acted like the trade unions over the Industrial Relations Act then, without a shadow of doubt, the Housing Finance Act would have been buried”. (See: “When Workers Brought Down the Tories,” Socialism Today, No.153, November 2011.)

Clay Cross

Yet because of the popular pressure brought to bear upon the Labour Party leadership, in October 1973 the Party conference passed a resolution calling for “all penalties, financial and otherwise“, to “be removed retrospectively from councillors who have courageously refused to implement the Housing Finance Act”.

“Then, in 1974, the newly-elected Labour government, reflecting this pressure from below, repealed the Housing Finance Act and introduced legislation to exonerate rebel councillors. But 17 members of the parliamentary party voted with the Tories or abstained, without sanction from the leadership, to keep the disqualification against the eleven Clay Cross councillors in place. On the same day, bailiffs appeared at councillors’ homes with writs totalling over £63,000 for ‘overspending’ on full-time warden services for old-age pensioners and for breaking the Tory government’s wages policy.”

With Jeremy Corbyn now at the top of the Labour Party, councillors should take a leaf from history and help lead the fight-back against Government cuts. We cannot wait until the next General Election, too many peoples lives are at stake!

Notes

The Kirkby Rent Strike (1974) was directed by Nick Broomfield, a filmmaker, who, shocked by the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster produced a breathtaking film, Ghosts (2006) — which explored the issues around the super-exploitation of migrant Labour.

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