Remembering the Kirkby Rent Strike

50 years old this year, Sam Fury writes on the important legacy that the Kirkby Rent Strike left for housing campaigners in Britain
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In 1972, Ted Heath’s Conservative government introduced a piece of legislation known as the Housing Finance Act, with the aim of reducing subsidies for council houses and raising rents. This was a vicious assault on working class communities, as the subsidies and controlled rents – already painfully inadequate, in many places – were some of the only protections renters in these properties had. This attack provoked an immediate response from renter’s organisations nationwide, but the residents of Kirkby, a small town just on the outskirts of Liverpool, were perhaps uniquely primed to respond; they were already enduring awful conditions and would not stand idly by while things got even worse.

During the second world war, Liverpool endured some of the heaviest and most sustained bombing of anywhere in the UK, owing to the strategic importance of its large port. The destruction unleashed on the city left many either completely homeless or living in slums after German bombs wiped out their homes. As a result, the local authorities began to move city residents to ‘overspill estates’ where new housing could be built to accommodate them. The largest of these was Kirkby, which it was hoped would soon become a prosperous and vibrant community. Unfortunately, the development of Kirkby was slow, and years after residents moved in, there were still no shops or other amenities. Like many of the overspill estates, Kirkby was plagued by poverty, crime, and poor health.

Prior to the introduction of the HFA, the residents of Kirkby were already struggling due to untenable housing conditions. High-rise flats in the Tower Hill area of Kirkby, in particular, were especially awful; residents reported their conditions as ‘sub-human’, with small, cramped living spaces and poor insulation. In a video made documenting the conditions of residents living on the estate, two young parents spoke of how the faulty drains outside the flats smelled constantly of human waste in the summertime, and lamented the lack of playing areas for small children, many of whom lived in the flats. The mother spoke of how the psychological distress of living in such gruelling conditions had driven her to attempt suicide, and how she had been prescribed ‘nerve tablets’ to help cope with the misery she was enduring, though they didn’t help. The solution for the problems they were facing could not be found in a doctor’s prescription, only in a real, meaningful improvement in the living conditions they were facing. Working class families are often stereotyped as stupid or ignorant, but this is not the case. The residents knew exactly what was the cause of their problems. “The ordinary people who live in these dwellings have got no chance whatsoever,” the young father complained, describing the mindset of the council as “so long as we get the rent off them, let them live there: they’re only pigs anyway.” This is a heartbreaking story, but not at all a unique one; it is one that people all across Kirkby and run-down, neglected towns like it have experienced, both then and now.

Their conditions were unacceptable, and left the residents looking for a solution. At the same time, unemployment due to factory closures was leaving working-class families in an even more economically precarious situation than they had been in previously. Local women, along with socialist feminists from outside organisations, created a women’s group in the Tower Hill area, to organise and respond to the issues they and their families were facing. There can be no accurate account of the rent strike that does not recognise the central role local, working class women played in resisting the rent increase. The rent increase was not the first attack the working class of Kirkby would have to confront, but the increase – the third highest rate rise in any urban district in the country – was perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Residents in Tower Hill formed THURAG – Tower Hill Unfair Rents Action Group – an organisation made up of residents, socialists and communists of all stripes. Right from the start, the organisers knew that their campaign would have to be militant, dedicated, and above all, highly disciplined and well-organised. As such, street and block committees were immediately set up, which held regular meetings to ensure there was a clear flow of communication and residents remained engaged and active. Residents were organised into action groups, and every striker was given a list of people in the action groups they could call if threatened with eviction. When the rent collector would come to the town, members of the action group would escort him around, so that residents were reminded not to pay and could not be intimidated. These tactics were developed first by trade unionists engaged in local industrial struggles such as the Fisher-Bendix factory occupation, where workers seized a factory following employees being made redundant, and kept up their struggle until the bosses were forced to make major concessions to the workers. The development of labour power in Kirkby was now leading to the wider development of community power, and the tenants were not alone in their struggle.

Workers in the local Bird’s Eye factory called a one day strike in order to attend a demonstration against the Housing Finance Act. This, perhaps predictably, was responded to with the sacking of all the workers involved. For people already in a precarious economic situation, losing their jobs was an even more devastating blow, but Kirkby residents refused to lie down and give up. The community came to the aid of the striking workers, with local women once again leading the charge – local mothers and their children picketed the main gate of the factory with their prams, in such formidable numbers that production completely halted. The threat of another, larger strike was in the air, and with the local community and press making their feelings loudly known, the bosses had no choice but to reinstate all the workers they had sacked.

As the strike continued, the council took harsher and harsher measures in an attempt to break the resistance. It spread lies about the strike, claiming residents were pressured and intimidated into the strike by thugs – totally ignoring the fact that the decision to strike had been made democratically, and the whole community had been actively and enthusiastically engaged in the action from the very beginning. Attachment of earnings orders to rent strikers, instructing their employers to garnish their wages in order to make up for the unpaid rent. Thirty-six strikers received court notices, though all of them refused to appear. In response, strikers took to the streets, marching in great numbers to display their anger, and eventually ended up storming the council offices. Arrests were made, and in response, strikers set off air raid sirens, erected roadblocks, and immediately set about gathering support for the incarcerated. Hundreds of activists picketed Walton prison, demanding the immediate release of those arrested.

Factory workers, council house residents and housewives may have faced different issues, but they recognised that ultimately, their problems came from the same place – a class system that worked only for the rich and condemned the poor to ever-worsening housing, employment and education. They had common enemies – greedy bosses, landlords, and politicians – and their enemies were united in exploiting and weakening them. If they were to have any hope of solving the problems they faced, they would have to be just as united as their adversaries and display real working class power. The Communist Party’s programme, Britain’s Road To Socialism, makes the point that if “movements and struggles proceed in isolation from each other, they can only challenge the ruling class on single, isolated issues but not its overall domination and control.” The Kirkby rent strike provides an example of a struggle which was in some ways quite developed – significant support was given to the struggle by the wider labour movement, and rent strikers adopted tactics from industrial struggle to great effect. Indeed, members of the rent strike made similar points – one woman involved in the strike, documented in Nick Broomfield’s Behind the Rent Strike, said: “the tenants themselves on rent strike have gone as far as they can. They’ve done this now for a year. The time has come now to point out that there’s no difference, no split between tenant and worker… the authorities have always used a wedge between us. We’ve got to come together… if a tenant is imprisoned, I think now it’s the turn for the industrial workers to use the weapon that they have, which is strike.” There is no doubt that the strike was only able to go on as long as it did thanks to its links with the local labour movement. Unfortunately, however, there was no cooperation from national union structures, and the larger strikes hoped for by tenants never materialised.

Big Flame pamphlet, 1975

Another force involved in the rent strike, as noted above, was the women’s struggle – ordinary women residents, as well as women from Big Flame, a trotskyist feminist group, played a huge role in organising the strike. Looking back on the strike now, it is clear that right from the beginning, the hard work of women was indispensable to the successes the strike had – and equally, the strike had changed the way some of the women of Kirkby thought – one woman looking back on the strike noted that before the strike she would talk about “babies and the problems you have with them… I still talk about things like that, but there’s a lot more to it… you’re no longer discussing the baby’s teething problems, you’re talking about the kind of clinics that are there for you… I knew that there were problems there, but I didn’t think they had anything to do with me… I question everything now.” The struggle in Kirkby had brought into sharper focus the underlying material conditions that made life more difficult for women – lack of access to quality healthcare, the rising prices that made it harder to run a home, and the necessity for more and more women to enter the workforce while still being expected to take care of their children. This in itself must be counted as a huge success for the development of class consciousness and political awareness in Kirkby, but there were still major issues and roadblocks for women in the movement. Activists from Big Flame reported women being told to leave public meetings to take care of children, and the concerns of women activists being dismissed as “women’s liberation rubbish”. For a strike that was so reliant on the work of dedicated women strikers, this divisive and chauvinist attitude struck a major blow to the integrity of the struggle.

In the end, the rent strike was not an unqualified success. After fourteen months of struggle, the arrests, court orders and division began to take their toll, and when the strike finally ended, those who had participated were ordered to repay their rents at a rate of £1 per week. Kirkby proves that the resistance to the Housing Finance Act was at times highly militant and impressively well-organised – and if it had enjoyed fuller support and had been directed more clearly, its potential to strike a blow against British state-monopoly capitalism and unite working class people could have been great. The wasted potential of Kirkby and all the struggles like it was and is sorely disappointing. Even so, when Labour eventually replaced the Conservative government, they repealed the Housing Finance Act – and it is likely that the clear example of militant and organised resistance to the Act put considerable pressure on Labour to repeal it. Furthermore, the development of political awareness and class consciousness in Kirkby and all the communities like it throughout the strike should not be discounted. As Britain’s Road to Socialism points out, “the struggle to win economic and social reforms under capitalism not only improves conditions for the working class, for as long as those reforms are maintained. It also raises confidence, expectations and demands.” Today, as we continue the struggle, the lessons from Kirkby and the historical example of working class people fighting back will help to provide the knowledge and motivation we will need to win larger and larger battles.

Outside of a few obscure academic circles, the Kirkby rent strike is not discussed as often as it perhaps should be – but it can offer us vital lessons as we struggle against the issues we face today. Today, we contend with a cost of living crisis, poor living conditions, limited rights at work, and extortionate private rents – all issues that the action in Kirkby was meant to face down. For us to succeed in confronting them, we must ensure that our organising is rooted firmly in the community, as the rent strike was at its best. We must work to bring together tenants, trade unionists, feminists, disability activists, racial equality activists, and progressives of all stripes in our battle against our common problems and common enemies. Every communist and socialist who is able to should participate as much as possible. There are countless examples of struggles like the one in Kirkby that show that when communities are united and organised, they have the potential to disrupt the forces of state-monopoly capitalism that exploit them. Our role as communists is vital – giving support in every way we can to those who challenge the ruling class, bringing different segments of the working class together in the struggle, and constantly developing our own political and class consciousness. Only through constant, enthusiastic engagement with our communities can we begin to shift the balance of power.

The community power that began to be developed in Kirkby can be rekindled and built upon, and working class people all across Britain can be brought together in an organised way that has the power to threaten the domination of the ruling class. To view the rent strike as a lost cause or isolated incident would be a massive mistake; it was but one battle in a larger class war, one that still rages today. The capitalist class never laid down their weapons – neither should we.

Sam Fury, is a member of the YCL’s Merseyside branch

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