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The Rent Strike

click for more info.The 1972 Housing Finance Act (the Rent Act) instructed local authorities to collect an extra £26 per council house in the period April 1972-73. It was, for many poor families, a real extra burden at the time. The Act sought to raise money from council rents to pay for other housing costs including a rent rebate for tenants in private housing whose rents were to be decontrolled. This was seen by the South Shields Trades Union Council as a switch of funds from council tenants to private landlords.

Further increases in council rents to a 'fair level' were in prospect. This was seen, correctly as events were to show, as the beginning of the end of cheap council housing.

The SSTUC saw this as an opportunity to engage in a campaign of grass-root direct action to confront the political establishment.

The objectives of the campaign were to engage local tenants in direct action against the Rent Act; to join with similar action on a national basis; to defeat the implementation of the Act, and with it the Heath government.

If, from the vantage point of 1999, this seems fanciful, it should be recalled that some 15 years later the Poll Tax was to be defeated by similar tactics and that, in 1974, the miners' strike did indeed bring down the Heath government.

The objectives of the SSTUC were displayed (for those who choose to read between the lines) in the leaflet produced by the South Shields Federation of Tenants Association:

'Fight back, refuse to pay the rent increase and you can change the law...the miners did...the dockers did...and so can you!'

A secondary objective (of some) was to expose what they saw as the right-wing tendencies of the local council Labour Group and local Labour Party leadership. Some revolutionary comrades had a wider perspective.

The tactics adopted were first to draw the constituency Labour Party and the Labour Group (soon to be the majority town council political party) into opposition to the Act (then a Bill) with a view to heightening public awareness and maximising tenant response.

It was never the expectation of the SSTUC that the Labour Group would refuse to implement the Act (although they would have been happy to support them if they did!). With a pragmatic, conservative tradition, and with many councillors who were careerist rather than idealist, the eventual implementation of the Act was never seriously in doubt.

With the government threat of surcharges (and possible jail) few councillors could be imagined as socialist martyrs - with the possible exception of one, Michael Campbell, a staunch member of the SSTUC, who led Labour Group opposition to the Bill.

The tactic was, at first, more successful than expected. Initially the local Labour Party and Labour Group leadership were encouraged to speak out publicly against implementation. The Labour council election leaflets (May 1972) publicly expressed resistance to the Act. It has been argued that this election policy was a major contributory factor in securing Labour 8 gains and consequent control of the local council.

Tenant opposition to the Act was evident in a mass rally of over 600 tenants in the town's Bolingbroke Hall - a meeting addressed, ironically, by the Labour Council leadership.

On 4th October in the face of bitter public opposition, the now Labour-dominated town council voted to implement the Act. The voting was;

22 Labour councillors against implementation.
11 Labour councillors for implementation.
3 Labour councillors abstained.

The vote for implementation was carried with the aid of 20 Progressive councillors (nominally independent).

The reality behind this vote was more complicated than the figures suggest. This has been brilliantly exposed by Ian Malcolm (son of the then Chair of Housing) in his dissertation on the Rent Strike - currently held in South Shields Central Library.

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Also by Jack Grassby -- Revolution in the 21st Century / Postmodern Humanism

Website Updated July 2005