Monday, 14 October 2013

The Times they are a-Changing

We always knew that, eventually, we were going to win the battle over the Bedroom Tax. It's so badly thought out that it's unworkable, especially given the drastic shortage of one-bedroom flats in social housing. But there have been times when it's felt hopeless. We've never managed to build up the sort of mass campaign that brought down Thatcher and her Poll Tax. It could probably have been done locally, in Ladywood, and still could be. But that would mean holding meetings at least once a month, and putting a lot of time into supporting people. The support hasn't been there to enable this to happen. Other cities have been more successful, but even there it hasn't been on the scale it might have been.

However, we're making our mark. Back in May, we lobbied the surgery of Albert Bore, the Council Leader and one of my local councillors. Ladywood has more people affected by the Bedroom Tax, so we couldn't have found anyone more appropriate to discuss it with. The surgery was held at the Council House - an odd, intimidating venue to choose - and they really didn't want us there. They locked the door against us, and only reluctantly let a couple of people in.

Last Tuesday, we lobbied the full Council meeting, and couldn't have had a more different reaction. Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion and Equalities (seen above talking to campaigners), came out, all smiles, with an official, collected 1500 signatures on a petition calling for no evictions - the latest batch, since we've handed a lot in previously - and we had a good talk. They were furious about the way the government has effectively set them up to fail, leaving them to administer something unworkable, with inadequate funding. They wouldn't promise no evictions, but they did emphasise that there are a lot of legal steps to go through before reaching that point, and that the don't want to evict. I'm sure that's true, but Housing Association tenants are less secure, due to the different conditions of tenancy. A stronger lead from the Council would make it easier to help them.

The change is partly due to the pressure on the Council, which must be unbearable for those working in housing. They're not bad people, even if they don't have the bottle to fight until they're really pushed. A large part of it, though, is due to campaigning. We've kept the Bedroom Tax in the public eye, made people aware of its stupidity, and scored a real coup when we got Raquel Rolnik, the UN invesitgator, on our side. It made the news in a way other aspects of the campaign haven't. We've made the politicians feel our presence as well, and however threatened the Council may have been a few months ago, they now seem, hopefully, to be viewing us as allies. 

We may not have had a mass campaign on the streets, but we've had a major internet presence, and that's made a vast amount of difference. Without it, nothing might have happened anywhere else. We mustn't underestimate the importance of traditional campaigning; protests, stalls, leafletting, etc, all reach out to people in a way the internet doesn't, especially when we're talking about the poorest, who often lack internet skills and access. Sometimes they get us coverage in the media, though most of them are suppressing news about protest. The miserable reporting of the NHS march in Manchester said it all. The BBC was challenged over it's pathetic effort, and all we got from them was a complacent piece of self-congratulatory media-speak. When 50 000 people hit the streets, they all know something's going on in the grassroots, and the only thought in their heads is to suppress it and hope it goes away.

They probably remember the Stop the War protests. They went away; a lot of people dropped it once the war reached its premature official end, and eventually the numbers turning out faded. But public opinion changed just at that time, and that wasn't coincidence. Until then, there had been widespread support for Blair's neocolonial adventures; since, wars have been unpopular, and that has to have fed into the government's unprecedented failure to win a vote on Syria. The NHS is different, however. Most people hold it in deep respect, and as the Tories try to kill it off via the death of a thousand cuts, so the protests will no doubt rumble on, and probably grow. I don't think their successors will dare privatise any further, but they need to be pushed into renationalising the bits that will already have been sold off. The likely result is deep damage, and the final demise of the Tory Party as an electoral force. We don't have to change public opinion on that one, just channel it.

The Bedroom Tax campaign may be quieter, but we're making steady progress. The last poll I saw showed 60% wanting it abolished. There are still a few people out there who claim it's 'fair', but most people understand fairness our way. It'll take time, and people are still suffering, but we're well on the way to winning this one. What we can't do is allow it to become a single issue campaign. We need to support the victims of the tax, while at the same time using it to raise awareness of the wider situation. If the Bedroom Tax is unfair, so is expecting people on inadequate benefits to contribute to their Council Tax; so are arbitary benefit sanctions; so is the treatment being meted out to disabled people; so are zero hours contracts. And so on.

With Labour threatening to be tougher on benefits than the Tories - the mind boggles - we need to use this as a wedge issue to raise awareness of other abuses. Let's be in no doubt about it; things like the Bedroom Tax, constant benefit sanctions, and ATOS assessments are abuses, and serious ones. They leave people without money to live on, in the seventh richest country in the world. What kind of nation are we, to wilfully leave people without the means to but food or heat their homes? Mainstream politics gives us a choice between the Tories, Tory lite (the remnants of the once great Labour Party), the Lib Dems, who'll pimp themselves to anyone to get a seat in government, and UKIP if you consider it a mainstream party. I don't. Here's Conservative Home crowing because Labour is stealing their clothes.

This is why we need a new party of the Left. Right now, the electorate is visibly to the left of Labour, supporting, for instance, renationalisation of rail, of utilities, of the Royal Mail. There's a political vacuum in Westminster, and we need to fill it, fast. Not only to build a party, but to avoid the awful alternative of some sort of zenophobic national socialism borrowing garments from both us and the traditional Right. The would-be emperors are fighting over invisible clothes, their willies waggling in the breeze, and sooner or later something will replace them. We don't need a Mussolini.

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