The Rent Strike
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
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
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.