Fighting the 1972 Housing Finance Act: Rent Strikes!

Extract from Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight (1988), p.43, p.48.

“Running parallel with the campaign against the Tory laws was the battle being waged against the Housing Finance Act. To a greater extent than the movement of 1967-8, council tenants in their thousands moved into action against the Tory government’s proposals to double rents over a three-year period.

“Again the [Liverpool] Trades Council moved into action. Ted Mooney prepared a pamphlet repudiating paint by paint the Tory argument on ‘Fair Rents’. The Trades Council and the Tenants’ Associations jointly arranged meetings throughout the city to explain the implications of the Tory proposals. The Liverpool Trades Council was the body which organised and drew together the tenant’s associations and the organs of the Labour movement. Reflecting this pressure, the Liverpool Borough Labour Party, although controlled by the right wing and virtually dormant for three years, came out against the Bill.

“When the vote for implementation of the Act took place in the council chamber, 27 Labour councillors voted with the Tories in favour, 21 Labour councillors voted against. Such was the revulsion against the right wing that the 21, including Ted Mooney and Eddie Loyden, formed their own Labour group and began meeting separately. The campaign to defy the Act continued, culminating in the imprisonment of some Kirkby tenants.

“But the end of the Heath government was in sight. In 1972 the miners struck over wages and achieved a great victory. In the winter of 1973-4, faced with a second miners’ strike, Heath went to the electorate on the slogan of ‘who runs the country’ and lost the election. One of Harold Wilson’s first acts on becoming Prime Minister, recognising the consciousness of the labour movement, was to repeal the Housing Finance Act and the Industrial Relations Act.”

 

Extract from Peter Taaffe, The Rise of the Militant (1995), pp.55-57.

“[T]he Tories launched a sharp attack on tenants in the Housing Finance Bill. The purpose was to drive councils, in particular Labour ones, to increase rents. The mass opposition to the Housing Finance Bill was, however, undermined by the NEC of the Labour Party which proposed a campaign of “neutralising or lessening” the increases and “delaying” the effects of the Bill. The NEC and their lawyers advised the movement not to take the Bill head on, but to grapple with legal technicalities. Militant quoted the statement of the NEC:

After much heart-searching, the National Executive has decided not to recommend Labour councils to refuse point-blank to carry through the increases. This is because the government could then appoint a housing commissioner with far wider powers than just raising rents.

“This anticipated the role of the right wing in all major battles that were to confront the labour movement in the next period. The same attitude by the leadership was shown in the battle in Liverpool in the 1980s. Militant counterposed to this an active programme of resistance:

The only way to break the proposed law is to break it. The NEC must: (1) call on all Labour councils and local government workers not to implement the rent increases imposed by the bill. (2) Mobilise all tenants and the whole of the working class to back Labour councillors and local government workers, with demonstrations against Tory councils and housing commissioners who impose the increases; with full support, including industrial action, for tenants who refuse to pay these increases and for Labour councils who refuse to impose them, especially in the event of legal action being taken against either tenants or councillors.

“An indication of the mood in Labour ranks was the fact that the London Regional Council of the party had called for an immediate freeze on all council private rents; taking over of all empty property, including office blocks, to use as at least temporary accommodation; cancellation of all council debts; institution of interest-free loans to local authorities; replacement of rent tribunals with committees of elected representatives of tenants’ associations, trade unions and the labour movement; an immediate target of one million new houses per year; the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control of the building industry and the land, together with the banks, building societies, insurance companies and finance houses with minimum compensation on the basis of need.

“This highlights just how far the ‘modern-day’ Labour Party has moved in a rightward direction. Such a principled resolution, moved by supporters of Militant, was accepted by the London Labour Party. Other regions of the Labour Party followed suit. In the South West, for instance, the same kind of demands for resistance were made.

“There was big opposition to the Tories’ housing bill from all sections of the labour movement. But only the heroic councillors of Clay Cross were prepared to go to the end in defiance of the government. Like the Liverpool councillors in the 1980s, they were surcharged and banned from office. Their struggle was fully supported and reported in the pages of Militant (and some of the Clay Cross Labour Party members became Militant supporters). On 8 December, for instance, Militant reported:

Last Sunday, well over 2,000 tenants and members of the Labour Party demonstrated at Clay Cross in Derbyshire, in support of the Labour council’s firm refusal to implement the Tory Housing Finance Act… The solid support of the local tenants was indicated by the fact that the march increased in size five times over as it passed through the council estate and people came out to swell the ranks.

“Graham Skinner, one of the famous ‘Skinner’ family (brother Dennis, Labour MP for Bolsover, is the best known), and one of the 11 Clay Cross Labour Party councillors, speaking to Militant commented:

The other Labour councils have caved in because they were afraid of the implications of not implementing the Act. I can’t say that I sympathise with them because I feel that if every Labour council had taken the same stand that we had taken, the Housing Finance Act would never have got off the ground.

A lot of councillors are basically councillors for their own ego, in my opinion. They get elected on promises and then forget what they were put in for. We at Clay Cross don’t forget. We carry out every policy that we issue in our election manifesto.

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