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Issue #1643      June 18, 2014

Meet the real people’s army

BRITAIN: Power is sometimes encountered in unexpected places. In addition to countless community meetings, Kaye Harris has played host to MPs, local councillors and might very soon be entertaining at least one Welsh minister.

Confident and redoubtable, Kaye landed punches in the national media and forced at least one major landlord to the table.

Alliances have been struck over ham sandwiches, mugs of tea and fig rolls.

Kaye’s living room has also doubled up as a field press office, the scene for some of the most successful attacks yet launched against the Bedroom Tax and the wider “welfare reform agenda.” (Under the Spare Room Subsidy, anyone receiving housing benefit payments will have to move home or pay a subsidy for each room they have vacant.)

Confident and redoubtable, Kaye landed punches in the national media and forced at least one major landlord to the table. Sharing an experience similar to that of tenants across Wales, Kaye explains: “When the Bedroom Tax was launched, I was like other people. I was angry, but wouldn’t say anything.” However, since April 2013, she has successfully organised her community and has established points of resistance throughout Bridgend and its surrounding villages. In that respect, she represents a new type of activist.

With little previous knowledge of campaigning, she has grown to occupy what was a void. The historical structures of tenant participation and mass politics have withered across the estates. However, the struggles of the ’80s have left a sediment that lies close to the surface.

From nothing, Bridgend has witnessed two marches and one direct action. Activity has served to relocate communities in their own fighting traditions.

There are now at least 40 people like Kaye throughout south and west Wales – activists that have emerged in response to a policy that has become a byword for callous incompetence.

Slammed in the media, attracting censure from the United Nations and unravelling in the courts, the tax has no fiercer enemy than Cardiff & South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax, which has consistently demonstrated how this measure punishes the most financially vulnerable members of our community.

Far from tackling “under occupancy,” the majority of Wales’s 33,000 tenants caught in its grasp are confronted with the choice of paying money that they do not have or “downsizing” to properties that do not exist.

In Cardiff, Caerphilly and a number of other Welsh towns, people are being forced to subsist beneath the United Nations absolute poverty threshold.

Our federation was formed to root opposition throughout Welsh communities and turn the “welfare reform” narrative on its head. Too often, depictions polarise between “passive victims” and “canny scroungers” – both casting the subject as a silent actor.

Seeking to bring the maximum number of tenants into activity, we have sought to avoid mass meetings in the Welsh capital – after all, a £3.50 bus fare is a family meal for many.

Instead, we have invested our limited resources into building local groups throughout nine local authorities. Additionally, the campaign has succeeded in bringing together a broad constituency of support including such organisations as Unite Community, Unison, the Church in Wales, Shelter Cymru and countless others.

Sue Leader, of Ely Against the Bedroom Tax and a recently elected Unite union community officer, explains why increasing numbers of tenants are moving to reject and appeal against the hated measure: “Every day we see so many emptied three bedroom houses. There is real anger that friends, family and neighbours have been forced to ship out.”

Indeed the anger, often visceral, is evidenced not only by posters but by the reception that we have received on the doorstep. The level of politics is high. “While the Tories talk about their recovery, people have not forgotten that money is being taken from them to pay back the cash used to bail out the banks. Everybody is being made to work more for less. Those who cannot work are being hung out to dry to encourage the others,” says Leader.

All recognise that this policy has its origins in London. Indeed, one of its most pernicious effects has been the manner in which it has forced local authorities and social landlords into conflict with entire communities.

Many agree that the early policy consensus came together with the objective of containing tenant poverty, thus preventing welfare reform from forcing a wider crisis of Welsh social housing.

Perhaps understandable from the perspective of keeping housing associations afloat, it has acted to render social landlords mistrustful of any strategy that does not depend upon the tenant developing sufficient “financial muscle” to meet the burden. This in turn has often acted to poison what has traditionally been a warm and solid relationship.

Paul Callaghan, affected tenant and case worker explains: “Through applying pressure, those who had initially claimed that there was nothing that they could do are now moving in the right direction.

“We have made social landlords, councils and politicians listen to us. Beginning with mass tenant lobbies, our campaign has gone on to lodge over 350 cases with the tribunal service. Amongst our major successes, all housing associations in Wales are now preparing a major information campaign to let tenants know that they have a right to appeal.”

Indeed, in addition to the £1.3 million boost to the emergency relief fund won from the Welsh government in May, there is now a very real prospect that the Bedroom Tax will choke on anything between 3,000 to 6,000 Welsh appeals.

As judges continue to award exemptions it is not difficult to see how the resulting political train wreck will drag the coalition into deeper, even more toxic territory.

Either way, in Wales, a new and powerful coalition is forming. A new tranche of tenant activists have already worked to embolden the best among our elected representatives and are taking the fight forward in ways hitherto unimagined.

The Tory discourse that has come to surround tenants and social landlords shares several telling similarities – both are considered feckless, both fail to plan ahead, both are cast as complacent – ruined by an unfortunate addiction to public subsidy.

This indicates how we can begin to move beyond the dented shield but also suggests the beginning of a new alliance between tenants, local authorities and social landlords.

Morning Star

Next article – An EU-wide struggle

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