(Part 1 2 of an ongoing series)
On April Fools Day the millionaire sadists that run the country launched one of their cruellest jokes yet: the infamous bedroom tax. It’s a policy so irrational and unfair that you can only conclude that they’re laughing at us.
Over the last 100 years, generation after generation of working class people fought hard battles not to live in really crappy houses, and to make society recognise that everyone should have a decent home as a human right.
The problem with that is that it its pretty incompatible with turning homes into assets and private property, which is one of the most important businesses of them all in capitalism now. This is even more so the case in Britain than a lot of other places. So, how much social, public housing there is vs. how much privately owned has always been a battle between rich and poor.
Between the 50s and the 70s, there was an economic boom, and the working class was powerful in mass organised unions. They forced both Labour and Tory governments to build 100,000 houses a year, and people moved en masse out of the Dickensian slums. No matter who was in government, the consensus was we needed to build council houses, and it was a sensible consensus that made the lives of millions of people much better.
But in the 80s Thatcher flipped that on its head, and put a stop to building council houses. She then encouraged tenants to buy the existing ones they lived in at seemingly cheap prices. The result is that it’s now very hard to get social housing, and 5 million people in Britain are sitting on waiting lists. It was a genius divide and rule tactic that split the working class between a relatively more well off layer, who had jobs where they could bet their future on a mortgage to get money now, and the under or unemployed under class demonised by all parties of government at Westminster, left to rot in the council houses no one else wanted. The plan ever since has been to set these two parts of the working class against each other.
The seemingly better off were actually only opening themselves up to a new kind of exploitation. Mortgages before then had typically taken 10 – 15 years to pay off, at the end of which you were rewarded with home ownership. From the 80s onwards government policies encouraged banks gone wild, with 30 year mortgages meaning you could spend the rest of your life paying the bank. Some people did well out of buying their council house, but a whole bunch are trapped with a property they can’t sell but that they don’t want to live in any more.
That was a stupid idea in the 80s. What was even stupider was to break the housing system, and then leave it to fester and decay. The result now is that there is a housing crisis in Scotland, with 187,000 people waiting for a council house. If you are lucky enough to get one, the cuts that have been going on for decades mean that over half the council housing stock actually falls below the Scottish Government’s own standard for a decent home.
I say it was a stupid idea – except for the people who were responsible, it wasn’t. The aim of destroying council housing in the UK, by both Tory and Labour governments, has ultimately been to shore up the property market bubble as a key part of the British economy, and to create more people who depend on their home for their wealth. With harsh laws restricting unions, it’s incredibly difficult to get increased wages, so many people were left with no other way to get a higher income apart from leveraging more debt through their only asset – their house.
That means you want the price of your house to constantly rise. Which means you’ll support right wing economic policies, and will vote Tory/New Labour. It’s the future society that Margaret Thatcher dreamed of when she talked about “a property owning democracy“. This helps partly to explain why whoever wins the election, the banks always win, and we’ve had permanent right wing British governments.
It of course also means a lot more profits for people who sell mortgages and other fancy forms of debt, who tend to overlap quite a bit with the people that run the country. The economy in Britain ever since has been kept afloat by what some have called “privatised Keynsianism“. Instead of the regular injections of cash from the government to keep things working you get with regular Keynsianism, it’s the private responsibility of all of us to take out more debt, to then buy more shit, to work harder at work to pay the debt, to keep the whole hamster wheel pointlessly turning.
The latest twist in this sorry story is that the current lot of Tories have decided to really go for it, and attack people in their own homes. Using their organs of class hatred, they whipped up tales of benefit claimants living it up in mansions, and tried to claim that benefit claiming is a cause of serial killers. Tales that are a million miles from life on housing schemes, but that were used to launch the bedroom tax.
Dubbed a tax, it’s actually a cut to housing benefit. Any room that the government decides is spare (and as you’ll see, they’ve got a pretty fucking wide definition of what’s spare!), you’ll have to pay for yourself. They’ll work out a cut from the amount they pay for your rent in benefit, and tenants have to pay the difference (14% for the first room, and 25% for the second, in a policy decision seemingly based on Monopoly house values).
What’s the point? They say to force people out of their homes, and into smaller ones. Remember the Tories want us to think tenants are hoarding their scheme mansions like a council Smaug. Can you believe that some of these people who need housing benefit might have (brace yourself) another room in their home? How dare they, reason the rulers who treat their own many houses like really comfortable bank accounts they can live in. A room that doesn’t have an adult sleeping in it every single night is a luxury the poor are no longer to be allowed.
Why an adult? Because children aren’t seemingly full people that might want their own room according to the government. Up until the age of 10 two kids are expected to share, no matter the circumstances. After 10 they’re allowed their own room – if they’re not the same sex. If it’s two brothers or two sisters, welcome to teenage hell of enforced sharing. When you’re searching for your possessions and drawing lies in chalk down the floor, try and save some of your rage for the government that put the sibling there in the first place.
Separated parents will be hit by this bizarre attitude to children as well. A parent that has part custody of their child will have a custody agreement that usually will specifically say they need to have a room for their kid to stay in when they come over. Pretty reasonable you might have thought, but the government is acting like the ultimate deadbeat Dad, taking away the money and (literally) telling kids to sleep on sofas.
But even more disgusting is the obvious way that the bedroom tax is just another facet of the government war on the disabled. Perhaps as many as 80% of the households affected in Scotland contain someone with some kind of disability. Life can already be pretty hard for people in a council house living through pain, immobility or mental illnessn, not to mention rampant hate crime. If you have an extra room in your home, it’s often because you need it for a carer to stay in or to store equipment. Now that’s too much for the welfare state to bear, we need cash for banks and bombs. . .
There is some exemption from paying the bedroom tax if you need a carer, but the threshold is very high. And this is just if you need a professional carer to come in and work. Many of the people hit the hardest are the spouses and carers of people who are long term disabled or unwell, and who need another room to sleep in practically. These folk are out there doing invisible work for free, a gigantic benefit to society. But that’s not enough to keep them out of the crosshairs of the rich.
So let’s say you do decide to give up your home so that you aren’t forced to pay rent you can’t afford. Here’s the cruel punchline of the joke – the bedroom tax is designed to force you to do something that’s impossible. As we mentioned already, there are no one bedroom housing for people to move into. 180,000 people are “underoccupying” two-bedroom homes, but only 70,000 one-beds are available.
No one has built any council houses for decades, and when last they built them they were generally taken up by Broons style families that had multiple generations in the one house. Since then the way families work has changed, with a lot more single parents and folk living alone.
But even if we were able to magically build the hundreds of thousands of one bedroom houses we’d need to relocate bedroom tax victims in Scotland alone over night, should we want to? Is it fair or reasonable to say a social housing tenant should only ever have the number of bedrooms they need? Disability is just one of a host of reasons why someone might need extra space. People’s needs change over time – people who aren’t parents one day can easily become one, and maybe we should accommodate that in allocating houses. The point is that everyone should be assessed on what they actually need, not some pre-determined idea of what they should get dreamed up by people who would use the space in a council house as a cupboard in their own homes.
So really, the whole point of the bedroom tax is kind of a con. It’s a solution that doesn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist. What the government is really trying to do has nothing to do with how fair the allocation of social housing is. They just want to cut housing benefit, and take money away from the poorest to redistribute like Bizarro Robin Hood. But the genius part of making it into an “under occupancy deduction”, is that instead of this looking like a cruel move by the government, you can try to convince the public the only people affected are people who’ve been offered perfectly good houses, but would rather stay in the palaces that the fantasy has painted them as living in. Straight forward demonization and scapegoating of people with nothing or very little by people who I may have mentioned once or twice already are INSANELY RICH.
Expecting the poorest people to take money out of their grocery and fuel budgets to pay this excess is delusional, and there will be tens of thousands of people who quickly fall into arrears. In England, where the government has thrown up its hands and said councils must decide what happens next, local Tory bastards will throw people out into the street. In Scotland there is the potential there might be some protection from the parliament and our separate politics, but we’ll come back to that in a future post. The point is that tens of thousands have no other home to go to, and no money to pay the rent. This is a speeding car heading in the direction of a wall.
This complete unsustainability and upcoming crisis has only one silver lining: the bedroom tax can be beaten, because it manifestly cannot work. Ultimately the government either has to back off in the face of the mass pressure that’s already starting to mount, or their going to have to give up on housing hundreds of thousands of people, with a massive increases in homelessness beyond a level the country can cope with. If we reach that point it’s difficult to see how mass unrest could be avoided.
From the start, the struggle for a decent home as a human right has been an absolute war with the ruling class in Britain. They want to turn the basic necessities of survival, like health and a decent home, into businesses where we have to pay to stay alive. The fact that through years of fighting we were able to win the principal that everyone has the right to healthcare, a decent affordable home and support through sickness and disability, meant that working class people could think about other things in their life than mere animal survival.
But with senile British capitalism kept afloat mainly by debt and war, social housing, housing benefit and the right to a decent home is something the government has decided can no longer be afforded. There’s only one way we’ll avoid a future planet of slums in Scotland – building a mass movement to defeat the bedroom tax, and voting Yes to an independent country that would enshrine the right to a home in its written constitution. In the next article we’ll look at what resistance there is already, and what prospects there are in the fight to save people’s homes.