On April the 1st, one of the Tory-led Coalition’s most regressive policies will be implemented across the country. The so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ (alongside many other reductions in benefits) will affect millions of people across the country living in council or housing association homes.
Tenants on housing benefits who are considered to be ‘under-occupying’ their homes will lose 14% of their housing benefit if they are deemed to have one spare room, 25% if they are deemed to have two. While to the outside observer this may seem like an innocuous and almost intuitive way to cut welfare spending and the deficit, you don’t have to look far to see all the problems of this policy.
To begin, the way in which the Government defines under-occupation is problematic. Two children under the age of ten (regardless of their gender) will be expected to share a room. When parents are separated and do not live together, only one parent will be able to designate a room for their child; the divorced father who lives alone in a two-bedroom council house will be forced to either move out or lose 14% of his housing benefit. People with various disabilities who may require an extra bedroom may or may not have that taken from them depending on Government definitions of what does and does not constitute a spare room: part time carers of the disabled will not be able to claim a spare bedroom while full time ones will. Men and women who live in the same house but are not in sexual relationships will be considered to be under-occupying their property if they do not share a bedroom. These are just a few examples of how the “bedroom tax” will affect people”.
More than this, the policy is totally unworkable. Put simply, there are not enough one and two bedroom council houses in York (or across the rest of the country) to accommodate all those who are currently defined as under-occupying. There is estimated to be around 2,000 people in and around York who are affected by the tax. People who cannot find new houses to move into will be forced to pay up, pushing those most vulnerable in our society into endless spirals of debt from which they will almost certainly never recover. David Cameron has four different homes, three of which are paid for by the taxpayer; Conservative Peer and welfare Minister David Freud owns an 8 bedroom mansion, as well as a £1.9million London home. This is a policy being implemented by those who could never understand what it is like to live in near poverty, constantly teetering on the edge of debt, often living dependant on an overdraft. This is an outright attack on the material conditions of the working class, unconvincingly hidden behind a media culture of blaming benefit claimants for all the ills of a corrupt society and it’s failing economy.
Students, workers, trade unionists and the unemployed must unite to fight this policy. Communities must organise if they hope to win. Communities that will be hit the hardest should democratically elect committees made up of people living in those communities in order to organise struggles and campaigns from within. ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’ campaigns (reminiscent of those employed against the Poll Tax) will be organised not just out of ideology, but out of absolute necessity, as so many tenants will be unable to pay. Tenants effected (and anybody else interested in fighting the policy) should seriously consider joining Unite the Union’s ‘Community Membership’ scheme in order to organise effectively and to ensure legal union representation should it ever be necessary.
The Labour Council in York (and Labour nationally) will claim that its hands are tied in fighting this tax. They will claim they are doing all can, and are investing £1million into Council housing in York; this is just 0.8% of the annual budget.
Never mind the fact that Labour MP Helen Goodman proclaimed that “we have said that the bedroom tax should only apply if people have been offered a smaller place to live and turned it down because obviously it is more efficient to use the housing stock more efficiently”, moving on to say that “we did need to bring down the housing benefit bill”. So what does labour counter pose to this Tory policy, nothing!
This has been evident even at a local level where at a bedroom tax protest organised by Labour left in York on Saturday the 16/03/2013 there was not a single labour councillor present. This however is not surprising, and suggests that the Labour council in York will attempt to push through the “bedroom tax” meaning that communities will not only be taking on the Tories but the Labour council in York as well. The demonstration attracted around 100 people, members of the York Socialist Party put forward our position, explaining that we will fight alongside ordinary working people and the unions to defeat this tax, organising community action groups to “Stay Calm and Stay Put”.
The Socialist Party pointed out the £850bn wealth of the major corporations stashed away in the banks, what recession!? Nationalisation of the banks under democratic workers control could bring this money back into the economy to invest in jobs and decent public services. Our call for the nationalisation of the construction industry and to implement a programme of mass council house building also gained wide support amongst people that attended the demonstration, some coming from as far away as Hull and Scarborough. The reception for our ideas was clear, members of the Socialist Party sold 28 papers with many more showing support and signing our petition against the “bedroom tax”.
They will assert (correctly) that if they refuse to implement cuts and set illegal budgets, Eric Pickles would set the budget for them. This may be true, but these cuts would be the same cuts that are already being implemented; Tory cuts that are rubber-stamped by a Labour Council are still ultimately Tory cuts. The Council could also borrow to cover its costs while it helped to build a fight back. Ultimately, if a democratically elected council that refused to set cuts were to have its budget set by an official that nobody in York wanted, it would send out a much stronger message of resistance to all working people that these ideological attacks can be fought.
This is a policy that can be defeated, just as U-turns have been forced in other areas of Government policy: the ‘pasty tax’, the decision to award FirstGroup the West Coast mainline, fuel duty rises, the introduction of an English Baccalaureate. And just as victories in the construction industry (where workers overturned a 30% pay-cut) and striking SOVA workers in Sheffield have shown that militant action gets results. All these policies have been defeated. This Coalition is a savage one, but it is one that is fundamentally weak and prone to in-fighting. This is a fight that we must organise, and a fight that we can win!
Jamie Chatfield, York Socialist Party.