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Saving council housing

A decade ago, with New Labour stepping up the Tory sell-offs, council housing seemed to be approaching extinction. Red Pepper looks at Defend Council Housing, a campaign that has stopped privatisation in its tracks

April 10, 2009
7 min read

When New Labour came to power in 1997, it seemed that Tony Blair’s government might be responsible for killing off council housing for good. The new government had decided not only to stick to the Tory policy of ‘transferring’ (privatising) council houses, but to massively speed up the process. It planned a target of 250,000 transfers a year – a rate of privatisation that would have eliminated all of the UK’s three-million council homes in just over a decade. The spin doctors were whispering darkly about ‘the end of council housing’.

If their plan had worked, council housing would be dead and buried by now. Yet after more than a decade of New Labour, there are still 2.5 million council homes in Britain – a reduction, yes, but nothing like a wipe-out. The pace of privatisation has slowed back down to a crawl.

And not only that, but Gordon Brown has pledged to lift the borrowing restrictions that currently stop councils building homes, telling councillors he would ‘sweep away anything that stands in their way’. The government is now under major pressure to fund a new council house building programme as part of its anti-crisis ‘economic stimulus package’ – something it would once have found unthinkable.

How on earth did that happen? The answer lies in examining the strategy and tactics of a campaign called Defend Council Housing.

A democratic opening

Defend Council Housing was founded in 1998, but the fight against council housing privatisation started a decade earlier, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives first tried to bring in ‘stock transfer’ in 1988. As soon as Thatcher floated the idea, tenants fought for and won the right to hold democratic ballots on the transfers, using the Tories’ own idea of ‘tenants’ choice’ against them. Tenants won the ballots in Torbay, Rochford, Salisbury, Arun and more, and the government started to retreat.

‘It was this struggle that ensured the right to ballot on transfers,’ writes John Grayson, author of Opening the Window: the hidden history of tenants’ organisations. ‘Defend Council Housing and thousands of council tenants have only had the right to mobilise around ballots because tenant organisations won that right in 1988.’ The same is true of security of tenure, and in fact of council housing itself, which was won by a movement from below. ‘Your rights didn’t fall from the sky,’ Grayson tells tenants.

So ten years on, when New Labour started to encourage councils to speed up the rate of transfer, council tenants across the country were able to demand ballots, citing the clear precedent.

Small groups of tenants seized this democratic space, forced the councils to run proper elections, campaigned, and won thumping No votes in many key areas – even though they were fighting against councils’ big-budget pro-privatisation propaganda. They were able to tap into the clear public feeling in support of council housing that the mainstream politicians had ignored, and give a voice to the majority who oppose privatisation.

‘Anyone except the Nazis’

News of early victories in places like Cheltenham and Sandwell spread, and in July 1998 the local groups came together to create the national Defend Council Housing campaign. This new coalition built on and revitalised the existing tenants’ associations, seeing the tenants’ movement start to grow again for the first time in decades.

The tenants built the broadest possible coalition, drawing in trade unions, councillors and MPs. It set itself up to fight on every front: not just winning support from tenants but linking up with council workers; not just protesting but also lobbying elected representatives; not just railing against New Labour but trying to win support for motions among its conference delegates.

Such diversity of tactics means that DCH is a campaign with something to say other than ‘things are terrible, come to the next protest’. It always makes sure to provide a list of ways that new people can get involved in every area of its activity. It publishes a newspaper and pamphlets centrally, as well as supporting local campaigns to help them produce and distribute posters, leaflets and ‘Vote No’ publicity for ballots.

Defend Council Housing takes pride in working ‘with anyone except the Nazis’. So any BNP members sniffing around are told where to go, but everyone else – Labour, Green, Liberal, independent, whatever – is welcome. The campaign uses this broad base to focus on the ‘pressure points’, wherever they appear.

In and against

DCH made a big step forward when it managed get a motion supporting council housing at the Labour party conference in 2004 passed by an almost unanimous vote (it has pulled off this feat again every year since). Daniel Zeichner, who sits on Labour’s housing working group, told Inside Housing magazine that it was clear why the government had changed tack: ‘Pressure from within the party.’

The issue of winning support from council workers is also vital. ‘The unions are behind us all the way,’ says one Defend Council Housing activist. ‘It gives us more strength to fight when we know that council staff are against transfer too – especially when they tell us that our campaigning is rattling their bosses.’ The campaign has won unanimous backing at TUC congress and support from a long list of trade union conferences.

In parliament, more than 250 MPs have signed one of the campaign’s early day motions. DCH also has very good links with the council housing group of MPs, which has just launched a new inquiry to build more support in the Commons. Rather than just denouncing ‘the government’ or ‘the council’, the campaign makes real efforts to win as many MPs and councillors as it can over to its side.

Lobbying alone would be unlikely to win much. But as well as gradually forcing the government’s hand, such work also gives confidence to activists on the ground to go out and win ballots, knowing that DCH is a serious campaign with support from every quarter, not some last-ditch rearguard action. ‘If tenants think you are just protesting you won’t be taken seriously,’ its latest pamphlet tells new activists. ‘Make it clear you are serious about winning.’

The fourth option

The strength of Defend Council Housing is that it did not just go all-out to stop privatisation, throwing everything it had into a purely ‘anti’ campaign. Having made broad alliances, DCH then put forward a carefully considered, reasonable and workable policy alternative to privatisation – what it calls the ‘fourth option’ (in contrast to the government’s three proposed alternatives, all of which involve some degree of privatisation).

Brushing aside the stigmas and myths about council housing and focusing on the facts, not rhetoric or polemic, the fourth option puts the case for direct public investment in ‘a new generation of first-class council housing, with lower rents, secure tenancies and a landlord tenants can hold to account’. It is a case that is not only useful as a set of arguments for activists, but detailed enough to be taken seriously by those who are in a position to do something about it.

This has given tenants and campaigners more than just a negative demand – it gives them a fully worked out alternative to campaign for, one that is making headway at every level. DCH has fought a long battle in every space it could just to keep council housing alive, but now the economic crisis is creating an opening for its positive alternative.

The challenge now is to keep up the pressure and force Gordon Brown to turn his words into action.

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