BIRMINGHAM tenants delivered a body blow last weekend to the government’s plans to destroy council housing. The two to one vote against privatisation shows New Labour’s bullying can be beaten. Tenants were promised investment in their homes if they voted for transfer to a private housing association.
Tenants were told if they stayed with the council they would be left in squalor and not given a penny for repairs or renovation. That was a powerful message-but 67 percent said no in Birmingham. It will inspire people across Britain, and demoralise ministers and their corporate partners.
This week’s Construction News reports, ‘The Birmingham tenants’ vote has dashed building contractors’ hopes of a £1.25 billion windfall.’ The way that anti-privatisation campaigners organised in Birmingham is a model for people who face similar battles.
Tenants against housing privatisation have a good basis to start from. Privatisation is such a dirty word that in ballots around a quarter to a third of tenants vote against it-even when the bribes are huge and the alternative seems very weak. The task in the ballots is to win over another third of tenants. Birmingham tenants and trade unionists organised a brilliantly effective campaign.
Roughly 500,000 anti-privatisation leaflets and 20,000 posters were produced. The campaign set the pace. Around 35,000 tenants received personal messages from the campaign as the ballot started. The council would not provide the addresses, so campaigners scoured telephone books to find the names of people who lived in the city’s 250 tower blocks. The fightback began even before the council confirmed its plans for a mass transfer.
About 18 months ago, when it became clear privatisation was coming soon, tenants and the local Unison council workers’ union both began to organise. The two groups made a key decision-to have a united campaign. An initial meeting brought together 70 people.
From this a steering committee was set up and decided to adopt the title of Birmingham Defend Council Housing (DCH). Campaigners in Birmingham agreed on a limited range of basic principles. They were against housing privatisation because it would mean higher rents, less security of tenure and less democratic accountability.
National unions like Unison, GMB and Ucatt (the building workers’ union) started to become involved in the national DCH campaign. Getting the national unions on board was a key step.
With the full backing of trade unions the campaigns now had vastly greater resources available, and many more people would listen to what DCH said. Birmingham campaigners helped to set up dozens of local meetings. On one estate after another groups of 15 or 20 people came together to kick off the resistance to privatisation. This brought together tenants who could carry the argument in their block or on their street.
They were the people who could win the trust of those they lived alongside. With the network established, Birmingham DCH called a city-wide gathering, and over 200 tenants came. This was at a time when meetings called by the council to publicise the sell-off plans were getting six or seven people to them.
Other big meetings followed, and it was clear there were now hundreds of trade unionists and tenants who were prepared to fight privatisation in the ballot. These people tirelessly leafleted, postered and argued during the ballot campaign.
As one tenant activist told Socialist Worker, ‘By the time the vote began people were proud to say they were voting no. They would come to our stall and shout their support.’
Technically the council was not supposed to promote the sell-off, but that was the message that came across to people. Birmingham council admits it spent £12 million. In fact its budget was up to £36 million. Money from the unions was important for the anti-privatisation campaign to respond. It could never begin to match the council’s funds, but it could help to hit back.
Unison’s general political fund stumped up £40,000 that was partly used for adverts on the back of the city’s buses. These underlined the point that this was a big, serious campaign. Tracy Twist, a Unison activist who was at the centre of the campaign, told Socialist Worker: ‘Rough and ready leaflets were enough to get the campaign started. But it helped that we then had the resources to challenge the council in the mainstream media. The money meant we had adverts in the Birmingham Evening Mail and Metro every day for the first week of the ballot. The key thing I learnt was that the only way to make sure you can win is to have a joint campaign with tenants and trade unionists united, where they gain strength from each other. Of course you also need local initiative, and to let people decide their own way of getting out the message. But when you have that big single focus then other people get involved. At first no Labour councillors would support the anti-privatisation campaign. Two came over quite quickly. By the time the ballot started we could publish a vote no statement backed by 12 Labour councillors and Lynne Jones MP.’
The Birmingham campaign was an excellent example of what socialists mean by the united front. A successful campaign to win a ballot involving over 96,000 tenants could not be run by any single political group. Instead people from very different political backgrounds came together on a limited programme based on activity.
It was about people campaigning together. People did not suddenly agree on everything. They continued to discuss and argue as they put their politics to the test. The working class of Birmingham has won a big victory, and those involved in it have learnt a lot about which political forces can offer a way forward and which do not.
In Birmingham campaigners are now determined to fight for the funds to improve the city’s council-owned housing stock. Elsewhere, especially where housing ballots are on the cards, people should follow the Birmingham model.
Phone Defend Council Housing on 020 7987 9989 or 07951 156 881, or go to www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk
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