We called it the “poll tax”. Millions did not pay. Local anti poll tax groups were organised everywhere, forming the national anti Poll Tax Federation, and after two years of struggle, with organised mass non-payment, protests outside the courts, and a demonstration that led to rioting in central London, the poll tax was beaten.
The Bedroom Tax means that 660,000 people receiving housing benefit who used to have their full rents paid directly to their social landlord are now expected to pay extra rent because they are deemed to be “under occupying” their own homes. The poll tax had exemptions for the unemployed, the sick and the disabled. The Bedroom Tax targets these, the most vulnerable, people.
The years that Cameron spent proving that the Tories were no longer the “nasty party” have been shredded by one the most vicious pieces of legislation we have seen. Means tested benefits are set at the minimum rate needed to survive. The Bedroom Tax pushes people under. Initial returns show that up to a third are yet to make a single payment. Effectively, tenants have started a partial rent strike.
Nor can tenants move, even if they were prepared to. Thousands are affected but there are just handfuls of one-bedroom places available in many areas.
Housing associations, landlords to 2.2 million, are at a crossroads. Set up to “help people”‘ with their housing needs, now they are expected to act as gangster landlords “with a pay up or get out” threat to their tenants. The increasingly-corporate big landlords lobbied for powers to replace secure tenancies and use up to 80 percent market rents. But benefit cuts threaten their cash flow as well as (for some) their principles, and they have lobbied the Tories to say the Bedroom Tax would be a disaster. They will have to choose whether to stand with tenants against this injustice, or to do the Government’s dirty work. Councils, with 1.8 million homes, face the same dilemma but are also accountable to tenants at elections. Tenants are already being bombarded with letters, calls and texts from the landlords, threatening eviction if extra rent payments are not forthcoming. Eviction procedures though can only generally be started when eight full weeks of rent is in arrears.
Councils, and the councillors who sit on the boards of the Housing Associations, can be put under pressure. In March it was the Labour left who called the first protests against the Bedroom Tax. Now people are asking Labour councillors to come out against evictions and for Ed Miliband to come out clearly and say Labour will abolish the Bedroom Tax.
Anti Bedroom Tax groups are being set up across the country. In Leeds, Greater Manchester (where I am), Liverpool, Barnsley and elsewhere citywide federations of groups have been formed. A Scottish Federation of Anti Bedroom Tax Groups has been established and at the Benefit Justice Summit last month we formed the framework for a similar federation in England and Wales.
Opposition to the Bedroom Tax is growing. The Tory propaganda that people on benefits “are scroungers” evaporates once the real story of how it affects people is told. Many low paid workers are just a few pay cheques away from being affected by the Bedroom Tax. Many people have friends, neighbours and family affected. The Bedroom Tax is a weak link in the Tory assault. It makes no sense, is indefensible, does not save money and will not solve the housing crisis. Tenants refusing to pay are at the heart of the fight against the Bedroom Tax; they formed the bedrock on which the fight that beat the Poll Tax was built. But there are differences.
The Tories have narrowed this attack to those tenants receiving benefits who live in the social housing sector. Most have a disabled person in the household. Consequently a higher level of solidarity will be needed to beat the Bedroom Tax. While the trade unions did not, officially, support the anti poll tax movement, the Anti Bedroom Tax Federation has already won support from the FBU and the PCS and from the EIS in Scotland. Many local union branches are keen to give money and support local groups. In just a few months a movement against the Bedroom Tax has been built in working class communities across the country. The movement is growing in confidence, has won union backing and is on the streets. With millions eager to see the Tories evicted from office, the fight against the Bedroom Tax has the potential to win.
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