This blog normally concentrates on highlighting and discussing historical events in London. Only because we live here and this is where we mostly write about…
We’ve made an exception for this post, as we’re in exceptional times. But also times that illustrate starkly that the conditions we are currently facing are, in fact, concentrated secretions of the same old same old…
There’s lots to be written about social changes that we are – voluntarily, or less voluntarily – undergoing as a result of the rapid spread and catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Mass deaths… horrific isolation for many… the lack of adequate protection for healthworkers, for people who live or work in care homes; for those who aren’t being paid if they don’t work, so have to carry on putting themselves and other at risk… the unequal distribution of deaths depending on your social class, ethnic background… underlying it all the unviability of a worldwide social system based on social division and economic exploitation, a society so precarious in its brutal rapaciousness that it totters when faced with a pandemic of these proportions. The horror of personal loss and fear for yourself and others; the devastation anger and pain…
People are writing that elsewhere… We might return to some of these aspects another time. Our approach is generally historical; we try where we can to link current events with struggles and movements of the past, to see what parallels and differences we can illustrate, to inspire, yes, inform, yes, but also just to throw up points for discussion which we think might be useful. (Others may disagree…)
The many economic measures hurriedly thrown up by the various nation states to support people unable to work while lockdowns and social distancing restrict our movement are not exactly unprecedented, if slightly unexpected when coming from a neo-liberal regime like the UK’s… But altruism is not suddenly the flavour of the month. After failing to convince even their own supporters that a eugenically-minded ‘herd immunity’ policy was scientifically unfeasible (as well as possibly dooming a future tory majority?) the massive ‘support’ program has been brought in to try to limit the inevitable anger and revolt that forcing people into lockdown poverty would provoke.
One way or another we’ll be paying for this for decades, and if experience is anything to go by, some of us will pay more than others; the classes with the most resources will be asked to pay less proportionally, and those who create the wealth, or can’t work, or have little or nothing, will again be squeezed as much as they will take. And more. Millions who cannot pay their way already can expect more holes in their pockets.
While millions cannot work, many of who aren’t getting paid, the bills keep coming in… Landlords are, unsurprisingly, not all cancelling rents, and the government is not even considering legislating to force them to – obviously, as the government is there to represent the interests of the propertied classes, and rent is one of the underlying pillars that keep propertied classes – well, propertied.
The new Government package lays down that landlords in England and Wales have to give three months’ notice before starting eviction proceedings. It’s worth noting though that this change won’t affect eviction proceedings already under way. Scotland’s emergency coronavirus legislation will also prevent private and social tenants being evicted for up to six months, by increasing the amount of notice the landlord needs to give before they can take steps to take over the property. In Northern Ireland no decision has yet been made (possibly the DUP will re-introduce the ducking-stool for tenants in arrears ?)
Beyond these three or six-month points, you’ll be expected to “work with your landlord to establish an affordable repayment plan which takes your circumstances into account”. Which for many tenants means – you might as well start packing.
The Government has also said that existing rules for social landlords dealing with rent arrears will be extended to also include private landlords. This is to “support engagement” between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes. It will ask landlords to be compassionate and allow tenants to stay in their homes wherever possible – while associations representing local government and housing associations have already said that no social renter should be evicted due to coronavirus. However – rent still has to be paid. If not now – later. Not getting paid now ‘cause you’re stuck at home? You MIGHT not have to any rent while the lockdown is over – but your arrears may well build up and your landlord will certainly come knocking down the line…
While private landlords are also now eligible for a three-month buy-to-let mortgage payment holiday if their tenants are ‘experiencing financial difficulties’ – no accompanying legislation lets tenants off paying the rent. There is no legal obligation for a landlord claiming a mortgage holiday to pass this on to their tenants. Relying on the moral sense of landlords to do so – like Captain Smith calling on the iceberg not to hole the Titanic below the waterline (except a government of landlords and property magnates knows for sure what non-regulation means… the monkey never pokes the organ grinders…)
None of this exactly SURPRISING. If you’ve been paying attention.
Across the world, people are starting to respond to this, with some rent strikes having already started, and many other folk are starting to discuss the idea. There are proposals for a mass collective rent strike to begin on May 1st, International Workers’ Day… That’s this week folks!
Read/download a guide to rent striking during the Covid-19 Crisis
Rent strikes historically have had some success, at some times, in some situations. Like most tactics for forcing concessions from the properties, working collectively tends to work better than fighting alone. Refusing to pay rent now might not result in immediate eviction in these extraordinary circumstances, but might also get individuals into hot water when ‘normal conditions’ are restored. For some people it won’t be a question of choice – no money coming in means no moolah for the landlord.
But collective action might produce a different result. As with any struggle, what people want and expect to get out of it is a good start. Abolition of rents until the end of the virus crisis? All sorts of possibilities beyond this exist, though it would seem a good start.
Whether it has a chance of succeeding, across the board or even in some places, depends on developed – or the development of – levels of social solidarity and preparedness to act together, stand by each other and – without mincing words – break the law as it stands. This type of cohesiveness varies wildly from country to country and from city to town to neighbourhood in the UK. This country in particular (though not uniquely) has seen four and a half decades through which social solidarity has withered and been weakened; much of this process has been more or less deliberately engineered to push society towards certain economic conditions and to undermine the strength of working class communities and their ability or willingness to organise collectively. Hand in hand with the destruction of industries where workers’ autonomy an§d self-organisation was strong has gone the full-scale selling of the dream of home ownership and the selling off of social housing. Both workers’ organisation on their own behalf and widespread access to social housing had resulted from decades of struggle against the crap housing and bad conditions/low pay/exploitation and lack of control at work. Both high unionisation/autonomy at work and council housing were partial concessions won in the face of fierce resistance by the ruling elites, to prevent the whole of their wealth an control being taken away; as soon as conditions allowed, these concessions were reversed. To the point where social housing and control over your labour are a pipe dream for most of us.
Working class solidarity evolved over centuries was always partial (and subject to chasms of experience based on race, sex, and any number of prejudices), but has been decimated in many communities since the 1970s. Whether the solidarity being developed now through mutual aid groups being set up to support each other through the lockdown can be part of a rebuilding is an open question we can all supply the answer to; will some of them survive the ‘end’ of the crisis (assuming there is an ‘end’) ? Could they be the basis for ongoing mutual aid in our daily lives ?
Simply in terms of rent and rent strikes, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from previous struggles. We’ve decided to post up an account of the rent strikes that took places in Glasgow during World War 1, partly because the practical methods of organising are inspiring and useful, though may not be immediately applicable to many in our atomised and isolated semis; this is only a contribution. But technology available to us now enables connections the residents of 1915 Glasgow closes never dreamed of. On the flipside, the limitations of adhering to social distancing rules can make our old expressions of solidarity, like traditional demonstrations, etc, difficult. But there’s lots of creativity, out there… ways around restrictions…
Another reason to flag up Glasgow 1915 is the parallels, in terms of the location of the struggle in times of international crisis, and the ideology of national unity, sacrifice for the greater good that people of the time would have recognised echoes of in the calls for us all to do our bit, stay at home, protect the NHS etc. Leaving aside the toxic divisions between the tories over whether to push for global capitalism or national capitalism, its easy to see that patriotism is a sham designed to make us imagine We Are in It Together –
when we’re in the Shit and our rulers think they’re It…
During World War 1 millions fell for the national unity sell, and many died for that. Small minorities spoke up and pointed out that the working class of all countries have everything in common and we have nothing in common with our bosses. However – there were those who supported the war effort AND those who opposed it who worked to resist exploitation and crap pay and conditions, expand workers’ autonomy, and to seize as much in terms of concessions out of the state and the owners as they could. Not without massive fractures and contradictions, true. Normal economic and social relations were pushed aside to a limited extent during the war (and the second one…) and this not only opened up opportunities for change, but the pressure of war, death, fear, horror made many sit up and think – isn’t these another way? A different way of being not based on profit and slog but people and love?
The ideology of the Glasgow Rent Strike should be examined critically therefore, as much as their methods and tactics admired; it is also worth seeing it as part of an evolution of resistance to the war and the development of self-organisation and revolutionary potential, as well as a parallel stage in the creation of the social housing of the following century and other welfare developments.
There are some other links to other historical rent strikes and more, at the end… only a beginning towards places to read up.
‘We Are Not Removing’
The Glasgow Rent Strikes During World War 1
In 1915 one of the largest rent strikes in urban history broke out in parts of Glasgow, in response to steep rent rises imposed by private landlords. Within months, after more than 20,000 joined the refusal to pay rent, organising a grassroots movement that physically resisted evictions and contested them in the courts, the upheaval forced the British government into passing emergency legislation to control rent levels.
From the late nineteenth century, Glasgow’s shipbuilding and naval engineering industries were booming, partly sparked by the demands of imperial expansion, and then by the growing expectation of a war amongst the great powers in Europe.
The growing demand for workers to man these industries led to a huge rise in the population. But housing did not keep pace with this increase. Much of Glasgow’s housing stock was severely overcrowded and in a terrible state; 70 per cent of the population lived in over- crowded one or two room flats, usually in tenement blocks. On top of this some 11 percent of accommodation was consistently empty, partly due to blatant speculation by landlords. The increase in demand worsened this situation, pushing rents up.
“The working people of Glasgow live in great many-storied barrack dwellings, in which are one roomed ‘houses’, two-roomed ‘houses’ three- roomed ‘houses and so on. In these ‘houses’ one finds a bed built into the wall of each room. In the kitchen, the bed is open to the view, though curtains are sometimes put up by the tenants. In the parlour, the bed is often hidden behind a wall and entered by what looks like an ordinary cupboard door which is only about a third of the bed’s length in width. The unhealthy stuffiness and darkness of such a bed and the difficulty of making it and keeping it clean may be imagined. The municipal authority do not allow any new cupboard beds to be built.
The overcrowding and the jerry buildings of Glasgow are proverbial, and for the miserable dwellings, very high rents are charged.” (Woman’s Dreadnought)
“In Clydeside there was more discontent about rents then elsewhere because the housing conditions were so much worse. There were streets and streets of one-room apartments, with whole families living in the one room and four or five families sharing one toilet on the stair. The tenement houses were all privately owned and there was a lot of opposition from the landlords to corporation housing. Rents were low because wages were low, but still they were difficult to collect. Rent arrears led to frequent moonlight flittings, which were possible because there was no shortage of dwellings in Glasgow before the war. The builders had even stopped building houses for rent because there was no profit in them.”
Any kind of hovel
“There seemed to exist in the minds of the capitalist and exploiting class the idea that any kind of hovel was good enough for the working class; but an awakening was taking place throughout the country, and a demand was being made for a better standard of housing…” (Helen Crawfurd)
These pressures had led labour movement activists to put housing reform at the centre of their political programmes in Glasgow from the 1880s; immediately before the war socialist groups were pushing forward demands for municipal housing to be developed, and organising tenants associations to oppose rent increases. These demands were also linked to growing opposition to the high rates the working class had to pay for public services such as water, and gas.
But the outbreak of World War One was to sharpen the crisis in Glasgow’s housing and spark a revolt that would have long-term effects on social housing both in the city and nationwide.
Glasgow was a major centre for naval construction and munitions and arms factories. The war created massive demand in these industries, which was fed by a rapid influx of workers and their families into the city. Some 16,000 moved into the city and 4000 into its suburbs in 1914-15; as many as 60,000 new workers had by some accounts come to seek jobs in the city and its environs.
Private landlords seized the opportunity to jack up their profits: rents were increased some 23 percent, most notably in the industrial areas surrounding the shipyards where demand was highest.
With the war creating bad conditions for financial speculation many landlords saw that their ‘unearned income’ wasn’t accruing enough profit and so this had to be realized through rent increases. Rents increased steadily, as well as food prices during this period.
“When the war started all the unoccupied houses were taken up workers drafted into the workshops and shipyards for war production. The landlords immediately started to raise the rents and to apply for eviction orders against the old tenants who couldn’t pay. The hardest hit were the unemployed and the elderly, and the soldiers’ wives; but it even became difficult for the employed workers, despite increased wages, to meet the demands of the house-factors.
The struggle against rent increases and evictions became keenest in Govan and Partick, where most of the skilled workers in engineering and shipbuilding lived. New workers were moving into these areas all the time; everyone was looking for a house near his work because of the long hours of overtime.” (Harry McShane)
Rent arrears or non-payment was treated very harshly – resulting in eviction, seizure of any possession to pay for the defaulted amounts…
Unrest was already boiling in the factories and shipyards. Glasgow, like many other cities, had seen a swelling of workers’ organising and strikes, as well as growth in socialist, anarchist and syndicalist ideas in the years before 1914; “the largest wave of working class struggle since Chartism.” These movements were to crystalise in the War years, producing the Clyde Workers Committee, the shop stewards movement, and would continue after WW1.
But while these developments were building in the workplace, the rent strike was mainly created and given its strength by the mass participation of women, in the community. Community organising was in fact somewhat disparaged by many of those who built the shop stewards movement, to start with; they saw the ‘point of production’, where workers were directly exploited by the bosses, as the crucial venue for class struggle. The rent strike was to prove that this was too narrow a view of exploitation and of resistance, and where it could be effective. It was also to cross the boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘workplace’, as workers came out on strike to support rent strikers. “What is inferred here is a short-sightedness typical of a political climate that sees industrial combat as a central and separate sector – the exploitative is seen as residing only around the workplace, a more male domain. But capitalist relations are secured and integrated in society at large; at the point of consumption as well as that of production, with both being regulated by government.”
Obviously, the war was used as an excuse to keep wages at a minimum. “so consequently the Rent Strikes can be seen in close relation to the industrial unrest on the Clyde of 1914-15, noted for the rise of militant ‘shop-stewards’ to echo a shop-floor distrust of
moderate union leaders who by 1916 were in collaboration with employers and government ministers. John MacLean, later jailed for opposing the war, saw in this conjunction of industrial and social strikes the first step “towards the political strike”. MacLean was also critical of the TUC and Clyde Workers Committee for not becoming directly involved with the rent strike itself but remaining within the bounds of the workshop movement, itself later co-opted.”
The Role of the Independent Labour Party
“The housing conditions in Glasgow in 1914 were appalling and the Labour Party before the war initiated a Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. The two strongest sections of this Association were in Govan and Partick (the principal industrial areas of the city). Mrs Mary Barbour, afterwards a councillor and magistrate in Glasgow, was the leading woman in Govan, while Mrs Ferguson was the leader in Partick. Many women participated and were active in this organisation. They included Mrs Laird and Mrs Morrison of the Co-operative movement… The idea behind this movement was to bring women of all political parties into the agitation and drive for better housing in Glasgow.
Agitation against rent in- creases and evictions for non- payment of rent developed all through 1915. A Housing Conference, attended by 450 delegates, opposed rent increases and called for publicly funded and subsidised housing.
Although the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had called the conference, as was central to the propaganda against the landlords, it was a grassroots movement based on self-organised committees, springing up in the first months of the year, that led to the rent strike beginning in 1915.” (Helen Crawfurd)
“Mrs Mary Barbour organised the women in Govan to resist the rent increases. They got together to resist the sheriff officer when he came to evict anybody, and had processions two hundred strong against the house-factors. Mrs Barbour became a Govan legend; even now her name is still used by the Labour Party at election times…
Most of the women who led the fight on rents were in the Independent Labour Party. Andrew McBride was in the thick of it with them. Andrew was a little fellow, modest and not much of a speaker, but he was the Secretary of the Glasgow Labour Housing Association from before the war and really built it up… Andrew Hood played a big part. He was editor of the Partick Gazette and used it to publicise and used it to publicise the rent strike – later he became a Labour Lord Provost.” (Harry McShane)
While the Labour Party had a strong organisation on which a movement could be based, the movement had already to some extent autonomously organised, in many areas, into ‘Close Committees’. If Labour had hoped that solutions to the city’s housing problems could be achieved via petitions, representations, legal obstructions and not by Rent Strikes, the mainly working class women who formed the backbone of the strike had their own experience, their own ideas, and from the first found methods of defeating evictions gained strength from the particular geography of their housing.
Joseph Melling in his account of the rent strikes (which does emphasise the part played by the Labour Party) reports that there was a considerable amount of friction between the tenant committees and Labour councilors… As often happens. The party had pre-existing policies and an interest in a more legalistic solution, but also hoped to benefit electorally… the autonomous movement that was developing at the grassroots had its own interests, and undoubtedly it was the physical resistance to evictions that transformed the rent strike into the threat that it became.
Other left groupings were also involved, for instance the Women’s Labour League, also the Marxist British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), of which John MacLean was a leading light.
We are Not Removing
The movement quickly became huge. From the start, as well as regular procession in the streets demanding the rent rises be withdrawn, and calling for a new housing policy, the campaign was based on refusal to pay the rent, legal defence in the courts and physical prevention of bailiffs eviction of non-payers.
“All day long in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in reparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on…”
By October 1915 there were about 25,000 tenants on rent strike. From Govan and Partick, the strike had spread to Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Parkhead, Govanhill, Shettleston, Richmond Park, Cathcart, Kinning Park, Dalmuir.
St. Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars and Woodside.
“The strikes were all against private landlords, as was always the case in Glasgow, and were helped by the fact that people had to take their rent to the house-factor (the solicitor who managed the rents for the landlord). They could see who was going into the house-factor’s office and knew who was paying and who wasn’t.” (Harry McShane)
“The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and
in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words
‘RENT STRIKE, WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increase were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants. The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff ’s officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, baking, wet clothes, washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women. The idea caught on, and it was a common experience to go through the working class districts, and find almost all the windows with these cards in them. In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the House Factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on the street where the House Factor’s office was, and then went up with the woman and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street he handed it over. This went on for months, with increasing
publicity and propaganda until every hall in the working class districts was packed. Rent Strike meetings gave the opportunity for anti-war and socialist propaganda from the platforms. I soon found myself in the thick of this fight, addressing meetings, always somewhat disgusted that the workers were asking so little when the whole world was theirs by right.” (Helen Crawfurd)
Tactics adopted by the rent strikers also included: pulling down the bailiffs’ trousers to humiliate them! Without a doubt we should be reviving that… ‘Rough music’ played on pots, pans and other household implements was also used on the demonstrations, to alert people of impending evictions, and imply to intimidate the factors and sheriff ’s officers.
The Woman’s Dreadnought, a socialist-feminist paper run by Sylvia Pankhurst in London, reported on the Rent Strike in October 1915, in a report that illustrates that Glasgow was not alone – strikes has broken out in other cities:
“On Thursday, October 7th, a deputation accompanied by a procession of 15,000 people – mostly women – went in the midst of great enthusiasm to the City Council with banners inscribed:- ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick! Only alternative – municipal housing.’
Mr William Reid who introduced the deputation, said that rents had been raised since the valuations were confirmed so that the landlords might evade the payment of extra taxes. The increased costs of higher rates, bond interest and repairs was estimated at 5 per cent on a rental of £10, 10 shillings, 0 pence. But the rent of £10 houses has been raised by 15 shillings to 40 shillings.
Landlords were therefore making a profit out of the war at the expense of poor tenants.
The Town Clerk explained that the representations of the deputation could not be discussed until the next meeting of the council unless a majority of two thirds should decide to discuss them now.
Baillies Stewart, Mitchell and Izett urged that the matter must be dealt with at once to prevent the people being turned out, but as their motions failed to receive a two-thirds majority the matter was postponed.
On Tuesday, October 12th, the landlords applied to the Sheriff for nine eviction warrants. Six of the tenants were munitioneers, and as it was said that if munitions workers’ or soldiers’ wives were evicted rioting
would ensue, the Sheriff adjourned these cases for a week. In three other cases eviction notices were granted to take effect in four days.
Will the neighbours allow these people to be turned out? Strikes against increased rents are developing in many other places.
In Birmingham, registered letters were sent out by landlords, giving no- tice to quit, and stating that rents would be doubled. As soon as the rent strikers learnt the contents of the letters one of their scouts went round in front of the postman advising householders not to accept delivery of the landlords’ registered letters. The advice was accepted and when the rent collector called on Monday, he was accompanied by a policeman. The tenants tendered their rents minus the increase and it was accepted.
In a Northampton working class district, where an increase of 6 pence on a 6 shilling house rental has already been made since the beginning of the war, the tenants have met a demand for an additional 6 pence with a blank refusal.
Occupants of houses in working class districts in Dulwich have received notice of an increase of one shilling per week. One landlord has threatened an increase of another shilling before Christmas. The tenants in many streets have decided to refuse to pay any increase. In Bermondsey the landlords have given notice to raise rents and the tenants are organizing resistance.
In Tooting the 350 rent strikers have won the day, the landlords after a stiff fight, agreeing to withdraw the increase…
It should at least be possible for the government to appoint an impartial body who could decided whether or not the owners of the property were securing from the addition in rent any advantage from the national emergency.
In our view such a compromise would be absolutely futile. When food is taxed manufacturers and shop keepers raise the price and the poor consumer who lives by his or her own exertions has to pay. When rates, taxes, bond interest and so on go up, landlords raise rents and again the poor person living from hand to mouth by his or her own exertions has to pay. The rich and powerful always pass on the burden to those who are poorer. The poorest have no one to whom they can pass the burden on. What is to happen unless this sort of thing is stopped?”
(“Fight Against Grasping Landlords”, article from the Woman’s Dreadnought, 23rd October 1915.)
Apart from the areas mentioned by the Dreadnought, there were also reports of rent strikes in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birkenhead, and Dundee.
“By the end of the year strong feeling had built up about evictions of soldiers’ wives and widows and their children. The people’s attitude to the war had changed; the stories were coming back from the trenches,
it was plain that the war was lasting much more than six months, and they just weren’t prepared to go on suffering. The support for rent strikes and the rise in discontent and ill-feeling were so great that the government began to consider whether or not to bring in legislation on rents – although many in the government were completely opposed to limitation. Then, in November 1915, an industrial strike against the rent increases finished all the discussions.
In November 18 tenants were taken to court in an attempt by the factors to get rent deducted from their wages at source. One of them was an engineer in the Dalmuir shipyard called James Reid and all the shipyard workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other yards and factories downed tools and marched to the court in support…”
The notices to prosecute issued against Reid and other Dalmuir Rent Strikers ended with thousands congregating in George Square outside the Court House. Five major shipyards and one munitions plant came out in support of the defendants, and other plants sent deputies in support to threaten general strike action; despite the war- time regulations against industrial action. The threat of a crossover between industrial struggle and the rent strike made the situation highly volatile, especially given the state’s dependence on the munitions and shipbuilding industries.
“The men from the shipyards and engineering works in Govan, Partick and Clydebank came out in their thousands. I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men with black faces. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets down to the Sheriff ’s Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean, afterwards imprisoned for his anti-war activity, and first consul for the USSR in Glasgow, was one of he speakers, who from barrels and upturned boxes addressed the crowds. Inside the court the judge and his attendants were attempting in a tense atmosphere to make decisions on the nine cases. The court was also packed.” (Helen Crawfurd)
“At the court-house there was a mass meeting in the street. Maclean, Gallacher, McBride and others spoke; the police pulled the platforms from under them they continued speaking, and the meeting demanded that the sheriff receive a deputation. To discuss a case with a deputation of workers before the proceedings opened was against all
the court rules, but once again Sheriff Lee was in charge and he agreed. After he had met the deputation he phoned Whitehall, who assured him that the rent restrictions legislation would be introduced in the next month. The house-factors still wouldn’t agree to an adjournment of the case, and Sheriff Lee decided it on his own responsibility.”
The Birth of Public Housing?
After this confrontation all pending legal actions against striking tenants were dropped, and the Secretary of State for Scotland asked the Cabinet to order the freezing of rents at a pre-war level. Less than a week later, the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act was introduced into Parliament, and was law by the 25th of December.
It prevented the increase of rent on all homes whose rental did not exceed £90 a year. “This applied to the whole of Britain, so that the fight put up by those brave Glasgow women was crowned with success, and the working people of Britain reaped the benefit.” (Helen Crawfurd)
“When the Act came into force it pegged rents to the levels they were before the war broke out, and only allowed a 40 per cent increase if repairs were carried out. In the 1930s it was possible for the socialist movement to use that act and encourage tenants to with-hold rents until they got their repairs done… Even past the second world war there were some tenants in private homes that had been rent-controlled in 1915.” (Harry McShane)
Later in 1919 the Housing and Town Planning Act was passed, mandating local authorities to build council housing and providing the cash… This is widely celebrated as the ‘Birth of public housing’; in which the memory of the Glasgow Rent Strike was a powerful influencing factor.
Obviously the legislation was implemented not through any sense of class justice, but “in the interest of the state as a whole.” The immediate and desperate needs of British Capital as a whole was threatened by the potential of the rent strike to spread to the industrial sphere.
Although municipal housing had been a labour movement demand for years, and although there were many factors in the creation of public housing, it was to some extent the extra-ordinary wartime conditions that allowed the tenants to triumph. The acclaimed climate of ‘national unity’, “we’re all in the same boat”, etc, was without doubt double-edged. It did allow the state to close out and repress some industrial and social struggles on the one hand, but did also create some space for those struggling from below to posit demands for social improvements, especially against interests seen as profiting from wartime conditions. Clearly workers and employers/the state were not ‘in the same boat’, but the rhetoric of sacrifice did sometimes cut both ways. Landlords raising rents where war work was leading to housing shortages, in this light, laid themselves open to charges of war-profiteering. The State found it difficult to side with profiteering landlords against munitions workers, and soldiers’ families.
One commentator on the rent strike and its significance identifies the difficult position the British state was put in, and the willingness of the ‘executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ to cut loose the landlords if the interest of the ‘national capital’ demanded it:
“The separate capitalist interest of the socially unproductive landlords during the first years of the war, upping rents to profit from the shortage of accommodation, and the increased spending power of the many workers, men and women, engaged in overtime on munitions production, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the main British capitalist offensive. The object of this offensive, as we have already noted, was to increase the efficient investment of capital and the level and rate of productivity of the labour force, to intensify exploitation. But this offensive depended for its political effectiveness upon the state presenting it as a national mobilization of both capital and labour that would transcend all private interests or class divisions in a national partnership based upon the appeal for increased productivity for the war effort. The ‘selfishness’ of the landlords was undermining the state’s appeal to the national interest by producing working class resistance to rising rents and was threatening to tar the industrial capitalists with the same brush, despite the state propaganda about the control of industrial profits that was thrown as a sop to the working class. Already the working class in Glasgow in their slogans and posters, were identifying the landlords, ‘The Hun at Home’, as they were dubbed, with the ‘national enemy’, the Germans. Working class tenants were defending themselves against the bailiffs, starting with the defence of those worst hit by the rent rises and attempted evictions, the war widows on their miserable pensions and wives of soldiers serving in France who had young children to look after and so could not take advantage of the work to be had in the munitions factories. Since the class movement developing around the rent struggle threatened to spread to production and paralyse the ‘war effort’, the state was forced to ‘side’ with the tenants against the landlords and cut away the ‘parasitic’ capitalist interests of the landlords from the main body of ‘progressive’ capitalist interests it saw itself as the representative of.” (Steve Vahrman)
To some extent this pressure to adhere to a kind of ‘national unity moral economy’ survived until after the war (and could be observed even more after World War Two).
However just as it was the collective spirit of the rent strikers that made it imperative to settle the conflict quickly, after 1918, the situation was exacerbated by the high post-war workers militancy.
A growing unemployed movement and strike wave fed into by the expectations of ex-servicemen and the families, who took the loudly professed ideal of sacrifice and unity at face value (sometimes genuinely and sometimes tactically) and pushed for widespread social change. The mutinies and revolutions which contributed to the war’s end also struck fear of revolt into the minds of the more astute ruling class strategists who foresaw that public housing and other large-scale improvements in working class life would be likely to stave off more violent upheaval.
Was the rent strike implicitly backed by capital? It is suggested by Joseph Melling that the Clydeside industrialists in effect supported the demand for rent freezes and even for state-subsidised public housing, not only because it meant and end to instability that was threatening social peace and thus productivity, but also long-term because they thought it would do the same in the long term – pacify and integrate militant working class movements.
According to Manuel Castells: “The enemies of rent strikers were not the capitalists but the landlords, and individual speculators… Two- thirds of Glasgow housing was built by individual owners borrowing money from small bondholders who were charging increasingly high interest. This explains both the inadequacy of the housing production and the harshness of the landlords who had to collect their rents in order to pay their interest. As well as this class of wealthy urban rentiers, the strikers also had to fact the building industry, a very small business sector operating on an ad hoc basis under the control of the landlords.”
Thus defeat for the landlords was not as such a defeat for large capitalist enterprises. The big losers were the landlords, and the building industry; one result of the rent strike was a depression in the private building industry, which in fact stimulated the need and push towards municipal housing even more.
The Rent Strike and Class Composition
But to discuss the rent strike in terms of capital and its interests is in some ways to undervalue the positive aspects of the self-organisation and unity the rent strikers achieved. Given the high level of both legislation and social pressure against strikes, agitation, under war- time conditions, the rent strike movement reached an impressive level of solidarity. It is true that they were able to articulate the boundaries of the struggle in terms that did not in themselves oppose the war, even to cast the landlords as the ones sabotaging the patriotic consensus, stabbing soldiers in the back etc. Nevertheless they were more successful in winning substantial intervention from the state than other contemporary struggles, notably the Clyde shop stewards movement. Both these two upheavals, though, also formed part of a continuum of struggle in Glasgow that began before the war, and continued after it.
Some commentators have flagged up the 1915 rent strike as arising from the conflict around craft privileges, the breakdown of old strata of traditional skilled workers – especially in the context of the industrialists’ wartime need to break these down, in the interest of mass industrial production.
A hypothesis exists of the 1915 rent strike as a manifestation of old labour unionism; by some commentators it is contrasted with the shop stewards movement developing in the city at the same time, and in which a newer, more homogenous class movement was developing in opposition to old labour aristocracies and craft divisions. Although skilled artisan workers formed the backbone of the Independent Labour Party, which as we have seen was heavily involved in the movement…
But according to Castells, the strike provided a common ground for unity between different segments of the city’s working class, “at the very moment when workers were weakened within the factories both by the recomposition of the work process and by the dramatic altering of the procedures for unionisation and labour representation.”
However the strike was clearly only won by the support of the trade unions (Castells illustrates this by pointing out that a rent strike in nearby Clydebank in 1922 was defeated, despite again having 20,000 participants, when the local unions did not give their support.)
In terms of different strata of the working class and their involvement in the movement, Sean Damer noted the character of the areas where the rent strike was strongest: “What is interesting to note about these areas of the city is that they are markedly different: heavily industrial areas, more respectable artisanal areas, and slum areas.”
It may be that the struggle gained strength from its ability to forge unity between skilled artisanal areas and more unskilled, traditionally slum, neighbourhoods.
This is interesting, if you compare it to Quintin Bradley’s analysis on the Leeds rent strike (which began in January 1914 and ended in March, before WW1 had begun). In The Leeds Rent Strike of 1914, A reappraisal of the radical history of the tenants movement, he identifies the Leeds Strike as arising specifically from the aristocracy of labour, skilled craft workers, people who saw themselves as a cut above the slums, who were facing rent rises on their somewhat better quality housing and being forced to pay or told to move to the slums… They struck to defend themselves against being driven down wards socially, to distinguish themselves from the poorest. The Leeds rent strike was heavily defeated. Beyond this he goes on to question the twentieth century tenants movement’s view of itself and its history, suggesting that the movement’s birth had more to do with a respectable strata of the working class defending its precarious position above the slum-dweller/unskilled, that with an egalitarian vision of public housing for all.
It would be interesting to know if research bore this out for Glasgow, or even for parts of the city, in 1915. And how it compares to later rent strikes.
Quintin Bradley’s article is online here
Women led the Movement
All accounts agree women led the campaign – they were at the head of the mass demos, central to the structures that spread the strike and kept watch/alerted the closes and blocks to impending evictions; they were the ones who launched violent attacks on House factors and sheriff ’s officers attempting to evict people.
“The presence of women as the backbone and main co-ordinators of
the rent strikes is an obvious fact bearing in mind the rigidity of society at this time, but documentation of these ‘housewives’ only exists in the guise of those women who were particularly vociferous in the context of the Independent Labour Party. A certain silence descends on the motivations and thoughts of the “two women for each close” involved on committees in the Richmond Park Strike, and on the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association established in 1914. Joseph Melling mentions a Boilermaker telling a group of shipbuilding tradesmen that “The men laughed the idea of a rent strike to scorn.”
Some were widows, of soldiers, many were workers in factories and munitions works themselves… A number had been suffragettes pre- war. There had been a massive entry of women into the industrial workforce, to replace men away at war. It may have been important factor in women’s leadership of the struggle – they were the breadwinners in many families, already breaking down labour privileges in work previously restricted to men. Manuel Castells has suggested that this process had an impact on their autonomy, their ability to make decisions and take charge of the strike. But this fails to take into account previous history… women had a traditional role in asserting moral economy of the lower classes and imposing it on their ‘betters’; in bread riots and similar protests through the preceding centuries, women can be seen taking a central role.
While the rent strike may have seen women taking centre stage, ironically the end of the war had a negative impact on many women – not only as returning men expected their jobs back and there was mass unemployment as war economy was wound down, which affected women heavily as their position in the workplace was precarious. But, also, the ‘restoration of authority’ and normal relations was an important pressure in post-war Britain, and restoring the gender power relations that had been shaken by the war and by struggles like the rent strike was seen as part of this. Mass unemployment also contributed to this, forcing women on the defensive, back into customary roles.
Welfare and Class Warfare
To some extent the Rent Strike is an important struggle in the development of a welfare state, especially in terms of how organised workers imposed some of their needs and demands on the state and forced it to integrate some forms of recognition of them from the representatives of capitalist interests.
It also was a stage in the development of a political leadership in Glasgow that was to dominate politics there for decades, and play a part in transforming the city in to a stronghold of both Labour and the Communist Party; witness how both Mary Barbour and Andrew Hood rose to high positions in the City administration in later years.
Both of these two developments reflect the underlying social-democratic nature of the workers movement of the time, despite some of the syndicalist methods the Clyde Workers Committee had adopted and despite the autonomous elements that won the rent strike. Much of the welfare state, as it was gradually adopted between the early twentieth century and the late 1940s, was the result of pressure from below, working class movements pushing for far-reaching changes, but channeled through a political leadership via the Liberals, Labour and the Trade Unions.
Without getting into a complex and possibly sterile debate about whether this represented concessions granted to prevent a militant working class from taking more by force, it is undoubtedly true that capital internationally, and in the UK particularly, through the twentieth century, up to the 1970s at least, managed, or tried , to integrate working class aspirations to some extent. In the decades since, a great deal of the concessions won have been under threat, some has been dismantled, others have been slowly disintegrated or undermined, and much of what remains is now subject to a renewed onslaught under the banner of ‘austerity’, ‘sharing the burden of getting the national debt down’… Social housing is probably the sector of the social-democratic welfare state that has suffered the heaviest restructuring since the Thatcher government of the 1980s took aim at it. If Glasgow can be seen as an important point in its development, does the rent strike also have lessons for dealing with the problems of modern urban housing?
Changes in housing can hardly be gone into in great detail here. But in the decades after the World War 1, social housing, mostly run by local councils, expanded massively, to the point where 42 percent of the UK population lived in council housing in the late 1970s.
Since the 1980s, it has been both declining in size, firstly due to a massive increase in the tenant right to but schemes, and has been semi-privatised (in the form of being hived off to housing associations and more recently of arms length management organisations). New council housing hasn’t been built, in any significant amounts.
To some extent social housing’s decline has led to council housing, in many parts of the UK, being relegated to a safety net for people with no alternative, dismissed and despised by many as a last resort, rather than a collective aspiration with a shared positive ethos.
Right to Buy, the Thatcher government’s cleverest policy in many ways, has played a part in the almost total identification of home ownership with self-respect, achievement and respectability. If you can’t achieve it you aspire to it. Private rents have also soared, especially since laws restricting rent levels were abolished – again under the Thatcher government – in the Housing Act 1980 and in subsequent legislation through the 1980s.
The massive growth in owning your own gaff has been part of an undeniable atomisation of ideas of collectivity in Britain since the 1980s, which has had huge positive consequences for capital, for
its ability to reshape society in the interest of profit with very little chance of mass opposition. It also created a huge new internal potential for expansion in markets for moneylenders, builders, developers and so on. Hence, though, the spiralling madness of house prices, private rents, and the impossibility for many of social housing.
On top of this the whole idea of ‘working class areas’ has broken down in many places – for instance, in London, integration of ‘rich and poor areas’ has spiralled; people of many backgrounds now live cheek by jowl, even former council flats on estates having been sold off – in some cases whole blocks. Gentrification has accelerated this.
All this has many results – but one is undoubtedly that movements- like the Glasgow Rent Strike would be much harder to build now. Although tenants of private landlords built the first rent strikes, and won them successfully at times (not just in Glasgow, also London’s East End rent strikes in the later 1930s), in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, rent strikes became better known for taking place among council tenants. Being all tenants of the one big landlord, in the same boat, living in the same blocks, made it easier to organise. Physical geography may well also play a big part in social struggles around housing. The Glasgow and East End 1930s rent strikes worked best when organised around people living in blocks… making collective self-defence easier, to keep look out, and helping in the process of meeting other people and building solidarity with them, etc. It is more difficult in isolated housing… though not impossible…
Many private flats these days might be owned by someone who owns just one or two properties… it’s not just home ownership that has become integrated into the mindset, but also the aspiration to own somewhere to rent to others…
This diffuse and fragmented housing map seems then ideal to divide us from each other. However… if history tells us anything it’s that no barriers can stand against us when we’re cunning, and start making links outside the immediately obvious. In recent years London, for instance, has seen tentative steps towards the beginnings of a private tenants movement, with small local groups of ‘renters’ getting together to campaign and protest.
The adoption of the World War 1 rhetoric of national sacrifice, we’re all in it together, unity in the country’s interest, by the current administration, is striking. What is certain is that if working class people stop pushing forward the boundaries, imposing our needs and
desires on capital, then capital’s own class warriors will push back. As they have been very successful in the last 35 years, the question uppermost is – how fast can we get pushing?
This episode by no means marks the end of Rent Struggles in Scotland, but the seed of more prolonged rent strike that took place between 1920 and 1927 in Clydebank, which employed widespread contestation in the courts as well s civil disobedience.
Sean Damer, Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent Strike of the 1920s (Clydeside District Council, District Library.)
Joseph Melling, Rent Strikes, People’s Struggle for housing in the West of Scot- land, 1890 – 1916. (Polygon Books, Edinburgh).
Steve Vahrman, 1973, introduction to John MacLean’s War After the War.
Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter (Pluto Press 1978). McShane was a long time Glasgow communist activist and trade unionist, sometime ally of John MacLean; a veteran of the Clyde Workers Committee, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and ‘30s… After some thirty years in the Communist Party of Great Britain, he left in the early 1950s, remaining a committed Marxist.
Manuel Castells, The Industrial City and the Working Class, in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements, 1983.
Helen Crawfurd was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. She played an active role in the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and was a member of the Independent Labour Party during this period. Preceding the rent strikes she was militant throughout Britain as part of the women’s suffragette movement, being arrested once in Glasgow and once in Perth, and twice going on hunger strike. Her account of the Rent Strike was taken from her unpublished memoirs that lie in the Marx Memorial Library.
Also worth a look:
Rent Strike 1960: An edited account of The St Pancras Rent Strike
A film about the 1972 Kirby Rent Strike in Liverpool
And it’s not just rent strikes – an account of 1930s mortgage strikes in South East London
We’ll add more here when we can… let us know of good links