Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Opening the gates

Andrea D'Cruz talks to a group organising collective action among people on the margins of the welfare system

December 1, 2009
5 min read

In the midst of the recession, the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) campaign group looks back in time and across the Atlantic for inspiration from the Great Depression. Then, clusters of impoverished, unemployed workers descended upon relief offices, demanding the means for economic survival – and staying put until they got it.

This is the essence of LCAP’s strategy of ‘direct action casework’, in which direct action is used to pressure an institution to accept the demands, rights and needs of individuals, families or communities. The tactic has proven successful in breaking through the cynical ‘gatekeeping’ ruse employed by London’s Homeless Persons Units (HPUs).

Eran Cohen, a HPU service user and secretary of LCAP’s Tower Hamlets section, explains: ‘Gatekeeping is denying people a service or right they are entitled to. For example, preventing them from submitting a homelessness application, which is a right regardless of whether they turn out to be homeless or not. We do direct action casework around that.

‘If someone comes to us who has been to the council and refused an application, then we’ll go down to the office, stage a sit-in, and demand that they see the application. So far that’s worked in every case.’

Ellenor Hutson helped organise the recent ‘Gatekeeping Roadshow’, which toured ten London boroughs, mobilising people to fight gatekeeping and raise public awareness: ‘Central government gives councils targets for the percentage by which they have to reduce homelessness, but there’s no way to reduce homelessness in London without money or more council houses, except by massaging the figures.’

‘Gatekeeping provides the statistics that allow the government to hide the fact that there’s a huge housing crisis in London,’ Hutson continues. ‘What we’re asking for is many more council houses and a cap on the rent that private landlords are allowed to charge. But of course we’re nowhere near being in a situation where we can demand them until we’ve built up a lot more strength at the grassroots.’

Springing individuals over the gatekeeping hurdle is ‘often a bit of a hollow victory’, Hutson says, ‘because the housing that they’re given in the hostels is so poor and then there’s another fight to be had.’

LCAP has entered this tussle too, with its semi-autonomous hostel residents group.

The ten-storey Alexandra Court hostel may sit directly above Hackney’s temporary accommodation office, but given the council’s snail-paced response to its state of disrepair, seems to exist in some impalpable vortex.

Ellie Schling, who has worked on the campaign for two years, lists bed bugs, mice infestations, broken boilers, out-of-order lifts, cramped living spaces and cut-off drinking water among the appalling conditions that Hackney Council has left residents to cope with, sometimes for months on end. Only when residents marched on the Town Hall in protest did repairs begin to be done.

The most challenging part of LCAP’s work is getting people to the point where they feel able to take action. ‘When people come to us for help they have suffered a lot of knockbacks and they have an expectation that they’re going to be kicked when they’re down and there won’t be anything they can do about it,’ says Ellenor Hutson.

‘It’s about introducing people to the idea of collective action and demonstrating to them it will work. Then things escalate quite quickly because it’s very empowering.’

She recalls the first hostel residents meeting, ‘where people were saying, “Nothing will ever change, we can’t do anything.” About a month later we had a march and managed to very quickly get the council to install new security doors with really very little effort. After they had that taste of power then they were like, “Right, we can have everything!” It was brilliant.’

‘It’s really important for people to organise with each other, partly because they’re much more protected when they’re together,’ says Schling. ‘Recently a family was told verbally that they had two days to leave, which isn’t allowed at all, but because they’re involved in the campaign and had our support they were able to fight it off.

‘The temporary accommodation campaign shows that collective action is possible even when people are in one of the most unstable positions and facing multiple problems. That they’re still able to organise and fight together is really inspiring.’

That’s what makes LCAP so special. As Cohen says, ‘It’s pretty much the only actual campaigning group that works around these issues. Everything else is either just an advisory service or a charity.’

The challenge now is developing collective action for broader as well as individual change. As LCAP recognises, ‘taking on individual problems one by one is in no way sufficient. Collective organising and mobilising for broader change is its necessary complement. In the Great Depression, casework took place as part of a mass movement, which forced Roosevelt to institute the New Deal – a product not of the benevolence of politicians, but of the activity of unemployed and working people.’

www.lcap.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali