What would it take for UK tenants unions to really win?

By Jacob Stringer


A recent visit to Berlin has given me much cause to reflect on the thorny topic of how to win better housing for everyone. I have been part of the London Renters Union for 5 years and while little in housing has improved in that time, we have always been able to comfort ourselves with the idea that if we can organise more people we’ll get there eventually. To go to Berlin is to encounter a city that has organised more people for better housing. The Deutsche Wohnen Expropriation campaign recently called a city-level referendum on taking back into public ownership 240,000 flats owned by big landlords. Amazingly, after much organising that involved many people who had never before campaigned on housing, they won the referendum.


Unfortunately the Social Democratic Party in power hates the idea of expropriation - far too radical for a party that wants to be seen as a prudent manager of capitalism - and has shunted the decision on whether to implement the referendum into a committee. Whether or not that particular battle is finally won - and most people think the SDP sent it to committee in order to stop it happening - what is happening across most of Berlin is the same thing happening in London and countless other big cities across Europe. Capital is pouring into property like a never-ending waterfall. House prices are sky-high, rents creep ever higher despite rent controls, and people are pushed out of their neighbourhoods. Most of the big squats that used to form nodes in a network of politicised people have been evicted. Bland blocks of flats sprout from every plot of land. Berlin housing campaigners have won a few battles but they are not winning the war. Some admitted to me feeling helpless before the vast influx of money ruining their city.


So let’s take a moment to dwell on the negative here: London (or Manchester, or Glasgow), might in 10 years time, eventually get to be as organised as Berlin. Maybe in 20 years time we can be as organised as Barcelona. We might even win some form of rent control. But even with rent control, good, affordable housing for all may still remain elusive, as it does in Berlin, as it does in Barcelona. Perhaps in that time Berlin and Barcelona, the two cities in Europe with the most organising around housing, may have become even better organised, and be finally winning. But that is speculation. We cannot be sure. It could be that they will still be making heroic yet largely futile stands against the floods of capital seeking return on investment. Some wins will no doubt happen, a few blocks brought into public ownership here, a few thousand new publicly owned houses there, but this will be small beans if property is still largely under control of capital rather than controlled by the people who use it as their homes.


So what would winning really look like? And I mean really winning. It’s nice to see Wandsworth or even Southwark councils adopting better housing policies than previously, but councils in the UK are so disempowered that they can only tinker around the edges. What would it look like to really win good housing for all? Let’s be clear about the fundamental problem. It is not corrupt councils or young professionals moving into new areas or new coffee shops pushing out old - these are more like symptoms. On the systemic level the problem is the vast streams of capital flowing into property that have taken it out of our hands. So those streams have to be either stopped or redirected. The capital flowing from liberalised banking regimes and easy credit would have to be either stopped by legislation, or scared out of the sector. The investments from rich people would have to be stopped either by taxation or by legislation to discourage ownership except when occupying. The investments going into developments would have to be redirected, through taxation or other means, towards new public housing controlled by those who live in it. Capital would need to be redirected away from assets towards productive, green industry. This all looks like, at the very least, strong social democracy in Westminster. It means the end of the neo-liberal era, and the defeat of the rich who have successfully argued for decades that their investments are more important than our homes. Crucially we can see that it would require radical re-alignments of the political landscape on more than just housing issues.


How likely does this feel right now? In the UK the left have been pushed out of parliament, but then it felt like that just before the Corbyn moment too. Things can change quickly. But on the other hand, we saw how well a hostile media can block anyone perceived to be socialist. Even if people do vote for a real answer to the housing crisis, can we really trust those in power to carry out the plan, what with the billionaire press and capital markets trying to sabotage them against the democratic mandate? It’s hard to see, frankly, this path being allowed to happen except perhaps under the cover of a state of emergency - whether that be climate, war or finance. This route, I believe, requires things to get really much worse before they get better. I respect people working towards it, but it doesn’t feel like it will change the housing situation for us in the near future.


Okay, so let’s draw out a more in-between kind of scenario. A fairly middle of the road Labour-ish or populist Tory government that is being pressured from below (by tenant unions and others) to solve the housing crisis. Maybe they promise housing changes in their manifesto, maybe they don’t. The point is not to trust them, but to force them to do what we want. We could perhaps win minor changes fairly easily, even limited in-tenancy rent controls. But the change required to actually win is more radical than that, so what, truly, are the levers of power we can pull to win radical change? Rent strikes by people in social housing could be helpful perhaps (and this tactic should never be discounted), but these are only likely to happen in defence of what already exists, not to create new futures. Meanwhile it’s hard to know what those in the private sector could do. I’ve written elsewhere about why rent strikes in the private sector in England and Wales are so difficult and I don’t see that changing unless and until we have big corporate landlords dominating the sector - not something I exactly look forward to. So at present we don’t have the equivalent of the killer tactic of labour unions, the strike either by workplace or sector. Without a killer tactic - the cross tenure, geographically widespread rent strike - and without a parliamentary left, what are we left with?


If we look back to the Glasgow rent strikes we can get a clue as to what might work. The government intervened in housing markets at this point in history not so much because of the suffering of landlords from rent being withheld. Rather it was scared of the civil unrest that was breaking out on the streets of Glasgow as tenants fought bailiffs and protesters fought police. Then it saw the strikes spreading to other cities and realised it could get out of hand. The government didn’t want anything to undermine its stupid and catastrophic war efforts. So it did what it had to do to calm down the civil unrest. The Swedish tenant movement also won significant victories - decades of rent control and secure tenancies - by highly disruptive ‘blockades’ of properties where the landlord had put up rents too much, calling on trade unions to stand in solidarity to blockade businesses too.


This all fits with the thesis of Piven and Cloward in their classic book ‘Poor People’s Movements: why they succeed, how they fail.’ They claim that efforts by the poor to organise up to state level are inevitably co-opted, and so the best method for movements of the poor to get what they need is to be ungovernable, to make everyday life difficult until they get what they want. At the time I read this it seemed to me rather fatalistic, and to not fit with the UK’s history of social democracy. Yet the UK situation now, with almost no parliamentary left, looks much more like the US looked in the 70s. Their thesis rings more true to me now. Civil unrest in the form of highly organised disruptive actions will, under some circumstances, force the hand of government to redirect capital in significant ways. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what else will.


So what are the circumstances and what might it look like? Governments fully in control, with a large mandate behind them, are often able to respond to civil unrest with force, and can ignore the screams of those who don’t like it. So we need to imagine a government that is tottering, that needs to win over a new section of the population in order to shore it up, that fears that one more thing going wrong could rob it of all legitimacy. Yet it would still need enough of a parliamentary majority that it could push through big changes to the housing and finance systems. A government with a majority, but feeling weak and worried about legitimacy, will do anything to avoid the appearance of things going wrong, and civil unrest looks very like things going wrong. They would potentially introduce very large policy changes, and perhaps annoy some of their financial backers, in order to head off the unrest.


It can’t just be any unrest of course. It has to be highly disruptive but with a strong moral narrative behind it that can be accepted by large numbers of people. So for example, a mass squatting movement to occupy empty new-build properties in London, driven by outrage that so many are living in squalor while thousands of flats lie empty. Or perhaps a mass disruption of estate agents’ business, on the grounds that they are parasites making things worse for renters. Or even a mass campaign to prevent evictions, should there ever be evictions on a mass scale. It’s hard to predict exactly what might hit the right note at the right time, but we need to be on the look-out for it, and we need to be aware that the moral message must resonate beyond just renters. It will also require national coordination around messaging, or at least a message so strong that it gets picked up across the country. With some luck and all the stars aligning this could all happen in one burst of activity, but it’s more likely we’ll have to work towards this over time, slowly building the intensity of activity and cooperation between tenant unions. Often it will feel like two steps forward one step back as initial efforts falter, as we don’t quite get it right, and try to correct the errors for the next wave of disruptive activity.


On a final note, and because I don’t want people to mock my prophetic skills in a few years time, there may be some third way of winning that we cannot guess at now: a new movement arising that can’t yet be imagined, an emergency that results in the state feeling responsible for housing people, the sudden demise of zombie neo-liberalism as global trade systems crash and burn, even - and I know this is a stretch - a government open to rational persuasion (more persuasive than the punishment by financial markets) that housing everyone well will make society better for everyone. But these are black swan events that cannot be planned for, and there is little point in placing hope in them right now. A final possibility with a slightly more sympathetic government would take a less disruptive route: a slow build to tenant unions as a widespread and respectable part of the landscape, much as they are in Sweden or Denmark, providing services to members and with a small voice in government. But the price of that is likely to be the giving up of radical dreams. It will make the housing system more bearable, but it will not transform it.


So here is my answer to the question of how we really win: either we follow the long road of winning large-scale social democratic (or even more radical) government, or we stir up widespread disruption when a government is feeling weak. The first method is hard to imagine right now and I have not yet seen a convincing strategy to achieve it. The second only involves waiting for the right moment, and being organised already for the government’s moment of weakness. The tough thing about this for tenant unions is that it is not easy to honestly tell people that we have a path laid out to success. Most unions make do with telling people that the more people we have organised the greater the chance of winning what we need. This is, of course, true. At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, I don’t believe it is sufficient - Berlin today shows us that. But in the end it is not such bad news. What we need to do is grow, prepare our members for disruptive actions, wait for the right moment, then make life for the government hell until they give us what we want.



Jacob Stringer is a social movement researcher and member of London Renters Union.


Cover image, 'Flying', Josef Albers, 1931.



24 October 2022