Summer was dramatic in 1972. Mass unofficial strikes had just sprung five dockers from jail. Racists were on the march against Asian refugees newly arrived from Uganda.
And Tory prime minister Edward Heath was declaring war on more than four million council tenants with an act that would impose record rent rises.
Heath’s Housing Finance Act provoked fury similar to the anger that the Tories’ bedroom tax has sparked today. But it was on a much bigger scale and took place in the context of growing industrial unrest.
Tenants organised, marched and refused to pay. Their resistance showed up the shortcomings of Labour and TUC leaders.
But it eventually saw the attack scrapped—and showed how ordinary people have the power to fend off attacks on their services.
Heath’s act committed councils to charging much higher rents than many Labour councils had previously charged. In London, rents were set to more than double within a few years.
The Tories claimed the rises were needed to stop a growing deficit in councils’ housing budgets.
Councils were losing money—but not to tenants. Rent had covered the cost of building their homes many times over.
Instead councils were losing money in interest to mortgage lenders. And the rising price of land helped landowners and developers squeeze more out of councils for building new homes.
Heath was out to make tenants pay for landlords’ profits. But many tenants were already struggling.
Glasgow council had written off £12 million in rent arrears the year before. As Socialist Worker noted at the time, “21,000 tenants were already on rent strike—of a sort”.
The Labour Party conference resolved “not to take any steps which may lead to the implementation of the bill”.
But by June most Labour councils had decided to give in to Tory demands and increase rents in October.
Tenants’ groups, some newly formed in response to the attack, protested across Britain to demand that Labour councils stand with them. They laid the preparations for rent strikes if councils refused.
Action against the attack was militant.
More than 2,000 workers held a token two-hour strike in Corby.
Tenants stormed council meetings in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Kirkby in Merseyside. In Southampton tenants began a series of rolling rent strikes, two weeks on each estate.
Tenants’ pickets in Lewisham, south London, “escorted” away the officials who were out to assess people’s homes and determine the “fair rent”.
Labour councillors in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, called for organising “no go areas” for bailiffs.
Bootle councillors said they would resign if the Tories sanctioned them for not increasing rents and told tenants to prepare for a rent strike.
Clydebank Communist councillor Jimmy Reid swore the rent would only go up “over my dead body”.
When the October deadline came there were rent strikes in more than 70 towns and cities.
Most of these were partial strikes—paying the old rent rate—but the most militant areas withheld the lot.
Workers, including 9,000 dockers, struck in Liverpool. Socialist Worker said, “The tenants’ battle is one of the most important struggles of working people since the last war”.
And through the autumn it only deepened. Hundreds of thousands of people took part.
Activists on Barnsley’s Dodworth estate in South Yorkshire had felt it was impossible to get a group going.
But more than 100 tenants refused to pay the new rents.
Tenants from 20 associations in Manchester organised “commando squads” to leaflet,
agitate and build street meetings in the unorganised areas to spread the strike.
The Tower Hill estate in Kirkby, Merseyside, began to emerge at the head of the movement.
Its tenants’ action group was launched in the summer out of a meeting of the International Socialists (IS), forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party.
They had a full rent strike with flying pickets to follow the rent collector round.
When workers were sacked for striking in their support at the nearby Birdseye factory, tenants joined the walkout that won their jobs back.
There was a debate about the direction this movement should take.
Delegates at the National Residents and Tenants Association (NRTA) conference in August voted for tenants to organise rent strikes and build for industrial action. The IS fought to make this happen.
But the NRTA leadership was dominated by the Communist Party, which had long since left behind its revolutionary beginnings.
It argued for a strategy that relied on Labour councils instead of tenants and workers—and pursued this despite the conference vote.
Labour councils were up against the government, the bosses and their own party leaders.
Labour’s Anthony Crossland warned that councillors would lose their savings, homes, jobs and seats, with no support from their party, if they defied the Tories.
Even many of the most radical councils were wary of mobilising workers or tenants.
Camden council was alone in London to defy the Tories—but it told workers to cooperate with the Tories’ housing commissioner.
Labour’s capitulation caused great bitterness. Councillor Peter Duffield in Doncaster tore up his Labour Party card in disgust. Rebel councillor Eddie Smith in Pontypridd told a demonstration of 1,000, “I want no truck with Labour quislings”.
The worst blow came when Jimmy Reid’s Clydebank council agreed to pay a fine rather than risk jail, and voted to implement the rise two weeks later.
Only the defiant Labour group at Clay Cross fought on to the bitter end.
These 11 trade unionist councillors preferred to risk prison than push through the Tories’ attack.
When the Tories docked their housing subsidy, they docked the same amount from the rates they paid to central government.
They moved rent collectors to other jobs in support of the rent strike, and organised street committees ready to resist the housing commissioner.
They spoke at workplace meetings to rally support for strikes. More than 5,000 people marched through the small mining town in their support.
But one council alone couldn’t beat the Tories. Amid Labour’s betrayals the rent strikes dwindled.
By the time of the second rent increase in April 1973, the number involved had dropped to tens of thousands.
Tenants fought on where local leadership existed to call action and rally support. More than 8,000 were still on partial rent strike in Dudley in the west Midlands a year into the dispute.
And the tenants on the Tower Hill estate in Kirkby kept going for 14 months. When the council tried to evict factory worker and tenant activist Tony Boyle in November 1972, hundreds blocked the road onto the estate.
The council retreated and started sending money judgement orders to chase up arrears.
Tenants sent back all requests for information marked simply “on rent strike”.
By August 1973 the courts were threatening to take money straight from tenants’ wages, and in December 14 tenants were threatened with arrest.
Two of them, including 27 year old construction shop steward Brian Owen, were sent to jail.
Some 80 print workers struck within hours of the arrests. Some 300 tenants rejoined the rent strike. Tenants held a picket outside the prison.
A riot broke out on the first night, with prisoners rattling their mugs in time with the chants of “free the tenants”.
Brian told Socialist Worker, “I’ve no regrets about what we have done.
“If the Labour Party and the TUC had showed as much determination as the workers on Tower Hill, this government could have been defeated.”
He was right. The problem was that the IS had been the only national organisation trying to spread and deepen the rent strikes.
It wasn’t strong enough to overcome the resistance of the much larger Communist and Labour Parties.
But the Kirkby tenants were part of a swell of resistance that was making Heath’s Britain ungovernable.
Unable to defeat striking miners, Heath called an election in February 1974 and asked voters “who runs the country”—him or workers.
They didn’t choose him. And thanks to tenants’ resistance, Heath’s programme of rent hikes was one of the first policies the new Labour government had to drop.