One hundred years since the famous Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915 and we’re still battling the same housing crisis.
One hundred years ago the Glasgow rent strikers won the right to rent regulation and council housing. In the last thirty years we’ve lost those rights. Rent regulation was abolished by the Thatcher government and council housing was decimated by the Right to Buy and is now to be sold off to pay for another right to buy for housing associations.
Today, like then, we see a growing swell of housing protests. An alliance forged by the austerities of insecure housing, benefit cuts and rocketing housing costs is uniting social housing tenants, private tenants, and homeless people in resistance to eviction, the squatting of empty housing and direct action against property speculators.
Inspiring groups like Focus E15 have crossed the boundaries of tenure between social housing and the private rented sector to campaign for security and affordability for all tenants. Campaign groups like Housing Action for Southwark and Lambeth help resist evictions and advocate on behalf of homeless people seeking council re-housing.
This unity in protest has been brought to us by the determination of government to remove all distinctions between private rented and social housing. In 2010 they abolished the right of homeless people to be rehoused with security of tenure in council housing with the result that they are now offered only a 12 month tenancy in private rented accommodation. By cutting affordable housing grant by half the government made sure all new housing association homes were let at near-market rents. The disposal and sale of affordable housing increased the flow of people from the social housing sector to private rented while cuts and caps to housing benefit enforced an exodus from high costs neighbourhoods. The resulting increase in property prices has spurred on waves of gentrification and an influx of international property finance leading to the removal of even more low cost housing.
This government campaign against affordable rented housing has triggered resistance across the UK. It has excavated a huge generational divide between the asset-rich and mortgage-free elderly and those under 40 who are priced out of home ownership, deprived of security and affordability, now destined to dependency on cowboy rental agencies, unfit landlords and insanitary insecure housing. A young middle class with nothing to lose now allies with social housing tenants fighting clearances, eviction and deportation from their communities.
The lessons from the Glasgow rent strike of 1915 and the insurgency of tenant struggles before World War I illustrate the need for a united campaign for housing rights with clear demands – rent regulation in the private sector and a new mass building programme of council housing. These demands were won not only by tenant action but through the support of a militant and assertive political movement. It was the organisation and support of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party that shaped the rent strikes into a concerted campaign for affordable council housing. We need to build the same mass movement today, working for common cause across the housing struggles across the country, to bring irresistible pressure to bear on government housing policy. The demand for a new programme of council house building must resonate across every city and every struggle.