SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 176 March 2014

How Scotland beat the bedroom tax

A particularly nasty example of Con-Dem coalition austerity is the bedroom tax. It allows local authorities to reduce housing benefit payments to people deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ their homes. This has led to the eviction of thousands of people – often those with disabilities or from other vulnerable groups. However, the pressure exerted by a mass campaign has led to its defeat in Scotland, as RICHARD NEVILLE and PHILIP STOTT report.

Wednesday 5 February will go down as a watershed date in the year-long struggle against the hated Con-Dem bedroom tax. The vote in the Scottish parliament in favour of the Scottish National Party (SNP) budget for 2014/15, negotiated with the Labour Party, contained a provision for £35 million to top-up the discretionary housing payment fund in Scotland. The result is that none of the 80,000 households in Scotland who have had their housing benefit cut under the bedroom tax will have to pay from 1 April 2014.

The budget also contained a commitment that will ensure that no evictions can take place in Scotland for 2014/15 for bedroom tax. The Scottish parliament is restricted under UK government rules as to how much it can put into discretionary housing payments – no more than 150% of the total coming from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in any one year. However, the Scottish government has asked for this cap to be lifted and, even if the Con-Dems refuse, SNP finance minister John Swinney pledged: "If the DWP says no, the Scottish government will put in place a scheme to make the additional money available to social landlords".

This huge victory for the anti-bedroom tax movement is the culmination of months of activity, protests, public meetings and demonstrations. The Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation, with Socialist Party Scotland members playing a central role, applied intense political pressure that forced both the SNP and the Labour Party in Scotland eventually to carry through many of the central demands of the campaign.

The call championed by the Federation for the Scottish government to fund the full £50 million a year to cover for the cuts to housing benefit under the legislation became impossible for the SNP to dodge. The success of the campaign can be measured by the remarkable volte-face made by the main political parties in Scotland over the last year. At the start of the campaign, the SNP said it did not have the powers or the money to mitigate the full impact of the bedroom tax. The only way to defeat it was to vote for independence in the referendum in September 2014, it argued.

In effect, the SNP wanted to surf the wave of revulsion and anger that greeted the bedroom tax when it was introduced in April 2013 to boost support for independence. However, the existence of an organised campaign of working-class opposition, overwhelmingly organised thorough the Federation and its local groups, put the SNP under huge political pressure to act.

Because the support of the working class is a crucial factor in whether a Yes vote can win a majority in September’s referendum, the SNP leadership has been especially vulnerable to organised pressure. While the bedroom tax may only have directly affected less than 4% of households in Scotland it aroused mass anger among broad sections of the working class – a straw that broke the camel’s back moment – evident in the turnout at public meetings and demonstrations.

The accusation that the SNP was not doing all it could to oppose the tax, and the active and prolonged campaign of the local groups and the Federation, rattled the SNP and led to growing calls within its own ranks for more concrete action. For example, the Federation seized on the revelation that the Scottish government had underspent its budget by £179 million in 2012/13 – enough to wipe out the bedroom tax for three years. The Fed and the local campaigns used this fact remorselessly to expose the SNP’s inaction.

The Labour Party was no quicker to respond. It took Ed Miliband, for example, until September 2013 to commit a future Labour government to abolish the bedroom tax. The Scottish Labour Party leadership also hesitated. It was not until September 2013 that a bill came forward in the name of Jackie Ballie, drafted by Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre, to support full mitigation and an end to any evictions.

As the campaign developed, the Labour Party belatedly and exceptionally saw an opportunity to attack the SNP from the left, accusing it of refusing to act to protect the poorest households in Scotland. This also applied increased pressure on the SNP ahead of the referendum.

As well as helping to draw up the tactics for the Federation and playing a key role in organising the campaign on the ground, Socialist Party Scotland members consistently took the opportunity at public meetings and demonstrations to raise the need for a new political party for the working class. This idea of a ‘party for us’ chimed with the experience of thousands of working-class people during the campaign. There was a ready enthusiasm for this, deepened by the experience of battling against Labour and SNP politicians over the bedroom tax.

There are still outstanding issues to be fought for. The Federation is demanding that all outstanding bedroom tax debt is written off and that all those who were forced into paying bedroom tax in 2013/14 are fully refunded. We are calling for a national mechanism to ensure that the full £50 million is delivered to social landlords quickly, and without tenants having to fill in 80,000 new discretionary housing payment forms to get the money they are due. The campaign will also remain vigilant in opposing any attempted evictions for arrears arising from 2013/14.

This major victory will be a huge boost to those fighting the bedroom tax in England and Wales, as well as the struggle of working-class people and trade unionists against austerity cuts. It shows what is possible when the working class organises behind a fighting programme. The TUC, and local councils, should take note: mass action can stop the cuts.

Tommy Sheridan, chair of the anti-bedroom tax federation:

"The response from the thousands of people in the housing schemes of Scotland who turned up at meetings and voted to be part of a campaign of resistance to this vile tax has been tremendous. All our hard work has paid off, we have set the agenda in this fight and both the Labour Party and SNP have been pushed to finally put an end to the madness that is the bedroom tax."

Shaking Scotland’s political establishment

In February 2013 Socialist Party Scotland began organising public meetings against the bedroom tax in the working-class housing schemes in Dundee, Glasgow and Renfrewshire. There was already an avalanche of opposition on social media sites, but what was lacking was an organised campaign of active opposition in the working-class communities, in particular in the areas where there was a high concentration of social housing.

The response to the initial public meetings convinced us that the potential to build a major campaign existed. The methods we used mirrored that of the campaign against the poll tax 25 years earlier: organising marches and pledging to defend those who could not pay the tax, building local campaigns in all affected communities, and uniting them together in a federation that would meet regularly and make decisions democratically on campaign initiatives and priorities. Campaigns against the bedroom tax were springing up across the country, with thousands of tenants looking to build a defence of their communities.

Tommy Sheridan, a veteran of the anti-poll tax campaign, played a key role in helping to build the campaign, speaking at a majority of the well over one hundred public meetings that were organised across the country. More than 5,000 people attended anti-bedroom tax public meetings, in particular between late February and the summer of 2013.

In the West of Scotland, a federation of more than 20 local campaigns was formed on a democratic basis in early March at a meeting of over 100 campaigners – to raise awareness, organise a march on the streets of Glasgow in defiance of the tax, and to plan a conference for any interested campaigns to debate the best way to defeat the bedroom tax.

A turning point

On 30 March, 8,000 people marched through the streets of Glasgow in a demo organised by the West Scotland Federation. People came from Glasgow Green to George Square in a show of strength from the schemes not seen since the days of poll tax. Thousands not directly affected by the attack on housing benefit also came out to show their opposition. Almost 5,000 took part on a demo in Edinburgh on the same day.

‘Axe, axe the bedroom tax’ was the slogan, along with the promise to build an anti-eviction army to prevent any attempts at evictions. That call was widely accepted, with local campaigns from Inverclyde to the Lothians, Dundee to Dumfries, all willing to engage in a campaign of civil disobedience if the need ever came.

Bin the Bedroom Tax Dundee, initiated by Socialist Party Scotland members, had won the first concession in Scotland from the local SNP run council. The council agreed a heavily caveated ‘no evictions’ policy for a year, and the first cracks were appearing in the edifice of the bedroom tax. Other SNP councils followed. As did Renfrewshire Labour-led council under pressure from the local campaign.

Scottish Fed launched

The Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation was formed at a conference on 27 April 2013. Over 250 delegates from 40 campaigns and trade union branches attended. The role of Glasgow City Unison was crucially important in supporting and sustaining the work of the Fed. There were discussions and debate in the run-up to the conference on the founding statement to be adopted. Socialist Party Scotland members were pushing for demands that would specifically target the Scottish government and councils to use their powers to mitigate the bedroom tax by providing the money to cover for the cuts in housing benefit and for the SNP to change the law to end evictions.

In the pre-conference discussions some leading members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on the conference arrangements committee initially opposed the incorporation of these demands into the campaign. In essence, they wanted to limit the demands of the Fed to anti-Con-Dem demands only, in an effort to try to make it more palatable for the involvement of the SNP and Labour in the campaign. They even approached Tommy Sheridan not to stand as chair of the Scottish Federation on the grounds that this would be ‘divisive’ and would ‘make it more difficult to involve the Scottish TUC’.

In the end, the SWP backed down and the founding statement did include the demands on councils to refuse to implement the bedroom tax and for the Scottish government to act. Tommy Sheridan was elected as chair of the Federation and Socialist Party Scotland member Luke Ivory became the founding secretary.

From the beginning, the Federation and many local campaigns built huge pressure on councils and the Scottish government to act through lobbies

and protests at meetings and surgeries. They demanded that the Scottish government come up with the £50 million a year needed to ensure that all those affected by the bedroom tax would not have to pay; that the Scottish government change the law to rule out evictions for bedroom tax arrears; and that councils and housing associations refuse to carry out evictions.

These proposals now form the basis of the private members bill that has been put forward by the Labour Party MSP, Jackie Baillie. But back in April when the bedroom tax was introduced the Labour Party was a long way from taking such a position.

Govan Law Centre

The Govan Law Centre petition to the Scottish parliament calling for a change in the Housing Act on evictions was widely supported. The centre also played a vital role in offering advice and support to many people affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland. The Fed has helped large numbers of tenants through the appeals process, using the Govan Law Centre toolkit in an attempt to clog up the judicial system.

Over the summer, with new local campaigns still springing up and affiliating, and established campaigns calling actions to force local politicians into taking a definite position, the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation co-ordinated the campaigning work to keep the bedroom tax firmly in the spotlight. There was another national demonstration in Glasgow of 2,000 on 1 June, and ‘mass sleep’ events in Dundee and Glasgow.

As the autumn began, Labour-run local authorities began to crumble under the pressure. Renfrewshire council was forced to set up a tenants' fund worth £600,000 in order to relieve the strain that the discretionary housing payment fund was under. Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire council had tried to evict Lorraine Fraser, a disabled tenant who had fallen into arrears. A mobilisation was called and, at a packed meeting in Viewpark, council leader Jim McCabe was forced into a humiliating U-turn and announced a ‘no eviction’ policy.

Scottish government crumbles

In September the SNP-led Scottish government announced that it would top-up the discretionary housing payment money by £20 million for 2013/14. Just before the SNP conference in Perth in October it was announced that there would be a further £20 million put into the discretionary housing payment fund by the Scottish parliament for 2014/15. The timing of this announcement was no coincidence – the Federation had called a demo on the Saturday of the conference. The SNP was trying to placate the campaigners, but the announcement just gave them a taste of victory.

The Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation and its affiliated campaigns have shown what can be achieved with a strong campaign. We have shaped the political agenda to address our demands and led the way at every stage of this fight. We have forced Labour Party policy on this issue and did not accept the SNP position that only a Yes vote in the independence referendum would end the misery of the bedroom tax in Scotland.

As the current Federation secretary (elected at the October 2013 conference) Gail Morrow, also a Socialist Party Scotland member, says: "This victory shows what can be achieved if the political will is there, but if it hadn’t been for the Federation campaign, bringing local anti-bedroom tax groups together around a common set of demands, then the SNP and Labour would not have acted at all to protect tenants. They were ready to sit back and blame the Tories, and not do anything at all to mitigate the effects of this horrible legislation. We have had to spell out at every stage of this campaign what could be done and we’ve been proven right".

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