SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

Forty years on:

How Clay Cross council fought the Tories

Forty years ago in one north east Derbyshire town of 10,000 inhabitants, there were more Labour councillors prepared to break the law and refuse to pass on Tory attacks, than there are now in the whole of Britain! DAVE GORTON looks back at their stand, and the relevance of their struggle today.

WORKERS IN THE UK are facing the biggest ever onslaught on their livelihoods. Capitalism means to make us pay for its inability to provide decent jobs and homes; the gains of the past are under attack from a vicious government. Having lived under Margaret Thatcher, many older workers expected little else from the Tories but what galls them most is that it is Labour councils making cuts.

Labour councillors claim they have no choice. What an indictment of the Labour Party and what it has become that only a handful of Labour councillors have had the bottle to stand up and be counted and exercise their ‘choice’: to refuse to do the Tories’ dirty work for them. And it is the current economic and political situation which has given the Clay Cross struggle greater resonance than just an anniversary.

Clay Cross sits less than 20 miles south of Sheffield, six miles outside Chesterfield. It is an area that thrived on coal. By the end of the 1960s, however, as the long post-war boom was slowing down, pit closures had a devastating effect on the local economy. Within a decade, all 14 pits within a five-mile radius of Clay Cross had closed. Unemployment rocketed. In April 1969, it stood at 6% locally rising to 9% by the end of the year. By April 1971, it was 15%. Nine months later, the town’s jobless rate was 20%.

The catalyst for the stance of eleven Clay Cross councillors against a national government was the 1972 Housing Finance Act, a thinly disguised attack on council housing and its tenants. Councils were to be forced to increase rents to a level comparable to the private sector. The misnamed ‘fair rents for all’ policy was the first major attempt by the Tories to hand over social housing to the private sector.

A million council houses were sold off at knock-down prices under Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ policy between 1981 and 1991. But in 1972, Edward Heath’s government was not far behind this annual rate, removing 60,000 dwellings from council stock.

A different kind of Labour Party

CLAY CROSS URBAN District Council (UDC) declared it would not implement the act. This stance of defiance had not materialised out of thin air, however. It was the logical step for a group of socialist Labour Party councillors who were committed to representing the people who had elected them to office.

Forty years ago, the Labour Party was very different to today. It had a mass working-class base which the leadership of the party had to occasionally heed. Militant workers in the Labour Party were to the fore in the huge struggles in the 1970s. The unions, which had formed the party, then had a major say in policymaking. There were huge battles between right and left, many over internal democracy. But even the unsatisfactory and frequently challenged party democracy of the time was light years from that in New Labour.

Since the 1990s, Labour has become an openly capitalist party, its policies designed to appease and bolster big-business interests, the 1%, and not to protect the 99%. The party is empty of workers. It has virtually no democratic structures and people under the age of 40 would never have known it to be much different from the Tories.

In whole swathes of the country, the Labour Party is nothing more than local councillors who make their own decisions rather than carrying out policy formulated democratically by workers and activists. But in Clay Cross in 1972, "the men and women who were elected to serve on the council were not remote figures who did what the [council] bureaucrats told them to do, but representatives of the working people of the town who kept faith with their electors. It was as simple as that". (The Story of Clay Cross, David Skinner and Julia Langdon)

A proud record

LONG BEFORE THE Housing Finance Act, the local Labour council had a record to be proud of in defending working-class people and seeking to relieve some of the deprivation and hardship. This was not something remote from the councillors – they lived in it and with it. They were council workers and miners, not the lawyers and local business owners that so often characterise today’s Labour councils.

The list of benefits they introduced is as impressive now as it was then: free travel and TV licences for pensioners, playgroups in the school holidays, the building of a swimming pool, and three Darby & Joan clubs built. When the Tory government stopped free school milk (‘Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’), Clay Cross UDC operated its legal right to use a penny rate to continue to provide milk. Other councils followed Clay Cross’s lead. (When the councillors realised the money would run out two months early, they circumvented the problem by increasing the never-used ‘chairman’s allowance’ from £25 a year to £385, and used that!)

The council was also responsible for job creation by expanding its direct labour force as mining contracted and, as we shall see, there was building work to be done. It paid a living wage to its staff. In the run-up to the first official national strike of local manual workers, in 1970 – the ‘dirty jobs dispute’ – the council settled the 55 shilling increase claim in full. In an article in The Militant newspaper (the forerunner to The Socialist), the late Pat Wall, who was to become an MP in 1987, said: "The council has shown what can be achieved even within the confines of local government, when the council is prepared to fight for working-class interests".

The real issue in Clay Cross, as in many other deprived areas of Britain at the time, was housing. Over 20% of the housing stock in the 1960s was slums. By 1970, the council had pulled down over 500 houses and built replacements on a scale which, if carried out nationally, would have seen 800,000 new houses built every year for five years. It was a costly programme. The slums had to be bought from the Clay Cross Company before they could be demolished. New land had to be purchased and housing built. The council used the general rate fund to subsidise the programme rather than government loans. "Just because the country’s financiers were charging inflated levels of interest on loans, that was no reason for the residents of Clay Cross to pay for lining the bankers’ pockets, said the council". (The Story of Clay Cross)

But council rents remained low – they were the lowest in the county by the mid-1960s. Even when the council’s first battle over housing – with the district auditor who found a £30,000 deficit in the housing revenue account in 1969 – had reluctantly meant a rise for the first time in five years, the resultant average rent of 32 shillings (£1.60) remained at this level through to the end of the UDC’s existence, following local government reorganisation in 1974.

Of course, while the majority of the Clay Cross population supported the council’s stance, it was not all plain sailing. Three of the original councillors got cold feet and, having failed to force the council to increase rents (by as much as £1 for pensioners), jumped ship. They joined forces with private house-owners to form the Residents’ Association and, in 1970, the stage was set for an electoral showdown. The turnout, double the national average for urban elections, led to all three seats up for election being won by Labour, the two renegades losing theirs. The Sheffield Star said: "Democracy comes in many forms; some less satisfactory than others"!

Better to break the law than to break the poor

BY THE TIME the Housing Finance Act became law, Clay Cross had already resolved not to implement it. The act took control of the level of housing rents out of the hands of local authorities, to be determined by rent officers. Even the British government’s official national archives state: "The 1972 Housing Finance Act reduced council housing subsidy and replaced controlled rents with ‘fair’ rents – in effect a rent increase. Clay Cross council refused to implement them". It represented an early erosion of the housing ‘pillar’ of the post-war welfare state, which had undermined the private rented housing market.

There was massive opposition to the Act but the majority of the UK’s council housing stock was under Labour authority control. Over 1971-72, the Tories had been decimated in local elections, losing almost 3,000 councillors. To implement the act, the Tories needed Labour councils to assist by obeying the law. There were big marches. There were rent strikes which lasted much longer than one in Clay Cross – 14 months, for instance, in Kirkby on Merseyside, and those that encompassed huge numbers of tenants such as the 15,000 involved in Dudley in the Black Country.

The difference in Clay Cross was that it was not tenants fighting their local authority, it was local councillors leading the opposition. As others fell by the wayside, Clay Cross remained true to the promises given to the people of the town.

What was the ‘fair rent’ for Clay Cross? A leaked government document revealed that rents would reach over £5 a week within four years! Battle was looming. The 1972 elections saw Labour win all four seats against the Residents Association. What became the renowned ‘first XI’ were in place: ten men and one woman prepared to stand up for their socialist principles. They held firm.

While more and more Labour councils backed down under threats of surcharge, the secretary of state for the environment, Geoffrey Rippon, ordered an extraordinary audit of the Clay Cross books. On the day the deputy district auditor arrived to perform it, "the entire 100-strong workforce of the public works department took over an hour off to greet him with a rousing chorus of the Red Flag". (The Story of Clay Cross)

Three thousand people from all over Britain descended on Clay Cross in December 1972 for a solidarity march. The Militant at the time noted that "the solid support of the local tenants was indicated by the fact that the march increased in size five times over as it passed through the council estate".

‘We’re not going to be Heath’s hatchet men’

ONE OF THE newly elected councillors, Graham Skinner, spoke to the Militant. When asked what the councillors’ attitude was to the weekly increasing surcharge, now at over £8,000, Graham responded: "My attitude is a couldn’t care less attitude. We fully understand the Act; we fully understand the implications of not implementing it; we expected we would be surcharged; we expect there is a possibility of going to jail. But we are still determined that we are not carrying out Tory measures, we’re not going to become Heath’s hatchet men!" When further quizzed about his attitude to the Labour Party leadership he said: "The parliamentary party is an old establishment society; apart from 30-odd MPs, as far as I’m concerned they can be classed as capitalist".

The struggle in Clay Cross developed further in 1973 as the last of the other combatants fell away. There was a solidly supported six-week rent strike before focus switched to the law courts. In July, the High Court found the councillors guilty of "negligence and misconduct" and fined the eleven a total of £6,985 (plus £2,000 costs). Councillor David Skinner commented: "We are being victimised for carrying out socialist policies. The only laws we have broken are the laws of Lonrho [the mining multinational, now Lonmin], Lambton etc". (Militant, Issue 167, 3 August 1973) Lord Lambton had recently resigned from the government after a prostitution scandal.

Later in the year, the councillors even had the temerity to start their own legal proceedings against Rippon for not appointing a housing commissioner earlier and thereby preventing surcharge of individual councillors! The infamous Lord Denning dismissed their appeal viciously: "They are disqualified. They must stand down… I trust there are good men in Clay Cross ready to take over". Little did Denning realise that a ‘second XI’ lay in waiting.

The housing commissioner’s entrance onto the scene was chaotic. The council refused to give him a desk or a chair. It was even reported that he had to buy a teapot and cups from Woolworths! The first press conference was abandoned and moved six miles away to a Chesterfield hotel. The council redeployed its own rent collectors to office duties so the commissioner had to recruit his own collectors. So the council promptly ordered its staff to resume duties but only collect the old rent. The commissioner backed down. In his six months in Clay Cross, he failed to get a single penny from tenants in increased rent.

By this time, the disqualified councillors had been forced to leave office. In the elections to replace them, ten out of the eleven Labour candidates, standing on the record of their predecessors, were successful. The eleventh lost by two votes.

Labour leadership’s betrayal

WRITING IN THE Militant in October 1973, David Skinner commented: "The tragedy is that, with a more determined leadership from the [Labour Party’s] National Executive Committee and the Parliamentary Labour Party, none of the rents would have been increased at all. If the leadership had acted like the trade unions over the Industrial Relations Act then, without a shadow of doubt, the Housing Finance Act would have been buried". (See: When Workers Brought Down the Tories, Socialism Today, No.153, November 2011)

The ignominious role of Labour’s right wing did not end there. Reflecting the wide support for the Clay Cross councillors, the Labour Party conference in October 1973 had passed a resolution calling for "all penalties, financial and otherwise", to "be removed retrospectively from councillors who have courageously refused to implement the Housing Finance Act". Imagine such a resolution even being debated in today’s Labour Party!

Then, in 1974, the newly-elected Labour government, reflecting this pressure from below, repealed the Housing Finance Act and introduced legislation to exonerate rebel councillors. But 17 members of the parliamentary party voted with the Tories or abstained, without sanction from the leadership, to keep the disqualification against the eleven Clay Cross councillors in place. On the same day, bailiffs appeared at councillors’ homes with writs totalling over £63,000 for ‘overspending’ on full-time warden services for old-age pensioners and for breaking the Tory government’s wages policy.

At the Labour Party conference in 1975, Dennis Skinner, the older brother of two of the disqualified councillors and MP for nearby Bolsover since 1970, called the attitude of the leadership of the party "one of betrayal and retreat all along the line on this issue". Dennis himself had been an integral part of the rejuvenation of Labour locally and had been Clay Cross UDC chair. He had refused to wear the chain of office, leading to the sadly apocryphal story that it was later melted down to finance the struggle!

The Clay Cross struggle and the betrayal of socialist councillors by the leadership of the Labour Party can be seen as one of the catalysts that sparked an almighty struggle inside the party for democratic rights over the next decade.

Fifty years previously, Poplar councillors in east London had fought under the slogan ‘better to break the law than to break the poor’. They were jailed during their monumental struggle where obeying the law would have meant cutting services, pushing rates above what most of the population could pay, or reducing poor relief to a level which would not stop the unemployed and their families starving. A decade after Clay Cross, Militant-led Liverpool city council defied Thatcher’s Tory government and 47 councillors were surcharged and disqualified from office. Their legacy lived on in 5,000 new council homes built in a few short years.

Clay Cross deserves its place alongside these struggles. Heroic stances certainly, but the councillors involved did not do it for any lasting adulation. They were committed socialists who understood at the time that capitalism could not be reformed to make it ‘friendlier’. It was the system of the bosses whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of the people who had elected them. As a lasting testament, Militant wrote that "our comrades from Clay Cross have pointed the way. We must now take up the struggle in the knowledge that Marxist policies offer the only answer to the capitalist crisis [and] which can defend the interests of the working class". (Militant, Issue 215, 19 July 1974)

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