The (non-)affordability of housing has been at the centre of the financial crisis and the regime of austerity it has provoked. The immediate trigger, let’s not forget, was the banks’ exposure to sub-prime lending in the US, where large mortgages were lent to indebted low-income families who were never in a position to repay. In turn, the politics of austerity has meant that across Europe too, people are now struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
In the UK, with the ‘bedroom tax’ and other benefit cuts beginning to bite, thousands of families will find that their homes have become ‘unaffordable’ as a direct result of government policy. This is especially worrying at a time of high unemployment and poverty pay. Unless they relocate into a cheaper area – often miles from workplaces and family or friends – or accept a move to a smaller, often over-crowded home, increasing numbers will fall further behind on their rents, and face court fines or even eviction.
The situation has certain parallels with the anti-poll tax struggle, which saw thousands of families chased through the courts for non-payment of bills. At that time, local campaign groups were able to provide practical advice, legal representation and direct solidarity action at community level to prevent bailiffs entering properties. Through the national anti-poll tax federation, community groups were linked up into a national structure, which enabled people to share experience and expertise on how best to defend each other. It also helped to join up local groups of community activists to further the political fightback and advance a campaign strategy that ultimately helped to overturn Thatcher’s hated policy.
Mirroring the development of US Occupy – where activists from the big set-piece demonstrations have become engaged in a wave of direct actions against repossessions – we are beginning to see local anti-cuts groups and housing campaigns across Britain discussing the need for concrete solidarity action, as Izzy Koksal’s roundup highlights. Pressure is also being brought to bear on councillors, now faced with direct choices over whether to send in bailiffs to evict families who have fallen behind on the rent as a result of the policy. Local initiatives are aiming to provide sources of low-cost lending to worried people as an alternative to the super-exploitative payday loans companies. There are signs that practical solidarity is beginning to transform an initial response of anger and fear into a willingness to stand and fight.
At the same time, it remains uncertain whether this emerging movement will be able to coalesce into a vehicle capable of offering a viable alternative to the current mainstream political discourse. With UKIP’s recent breakthrough in the polls offering a populist right-wing repository for opposition, it is easy to see why calls for a new party of the left, such as that made recently by the veteran film director Ken Loach, can sound attractive. Of course, bringing such an alternative any closer to realisation is more difficult.
Similarly, in planning for its potentially important ‘People’s Assembly’ later this year, the Coalition of Resistance should be careful to avoid a Field of Dreams model of organising (‘build it and they will come’). Even the most inspiring speeches can get us only so far. What is needed is attention to how the existing campaigns on the ground can be reinforced to maximise the involvement of all political, union and community groups serious about taking practical steps to defend families under attack.
The success of Syriza in Greece, another key development influencing recent thinking on the left, holds lessons here. Syriza developed as a coalition with the very specific priority of giving practical support to the movements emerging in the streets, local communities and workplaces. This meant that it did not appear as an external force forever pushing its own line but as a positive, enabling influence in the various struggles. Only now, nearly 10 years on, is it beginning to slowly, carefully develop the structures of a party.
Of course there is no single template for success, and it remains to be seen whether Syriza will be able to make good on the enormous burden of expectation and responsibility placed on its shoulders. Nevertheless, its methods have helped to build the organisational capacity of the anti-austerity movement in Greece in new and important ways from which we can learn.
The question of what new formation is possible or necessary must always begin from the daily experience and needs of working class communities. It is possible that, in bringing together community organisers, tenants’ groups, legal experts and trade unionists, we might begin to consolidate a national anti‑evictions network, enabling experiences and practical tips to be shared. Such unity in action might in time begin to find electoral expression too.
Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.