From “the Lucas girls’ joy” to “we won’t pay” –
the fight against Bedaux to the rent strike:
Birmingham Communists in action in the 1930s
The 1930s saw, across the country but especially in Birmingham, the development of a pioneering political strategy by Communists, which enriched trade union organisation by the mass mobilisation of previously unorganised women, especially young women, in such a way that it changed the face of trade unionism. Moreover, the mass character of such initiatives fed into community activism that shook municipal politics so that it could no longer ignore working people. Both strands of experience would lead to a specifically British analysis of revolutionary politics that was notably embodied in the Communist Party’s long-term strategic programme, the British Road to Socialism.
A Russian proverb has it that those who look with one eye on the path travelled behind, or one eye on the road ahead, are equally blind. The story of, what contemporary parlance called the Lucas `girls’, and their subsequent role in the community, perhaps offers pointers even in today’s more complicated political landscape. Fortresses of labour, in the form of giant factories, and council house tenancies may no longer be the norm, but exploitation at work and in the community are still potentially significant crucibles of class conflict.
Organised, collective `strikes’ of tenants have a long history. One of the earliest, in 1914, was the massive strike of tenants in Leeds. One of the most well known was the Glasgow strike of private tenants against increases in rents, the following year. This ushered in a period of intense trade union and political militancy in the area, heightened by pressures caused by the First World War. The action was not only successful, but resulted in rents and mortgages being frozen by law until the early 1920s.
The threat of such action by tenants’ organisations and the general impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution made Lloyd George promise ‘homes fit for heroes’ through the 1919 “Addison” Act. All councils would be obliged to build rented social housing, receiving government subsidies to assist in this. The first two, minority, Labour governments pushed this agenda even further by their housing Acts of 1924 and 1929/30 – the Wheatley and Greenwood Acts. Tenants’ organisations developed on the rapidly expanding council estates during the 1930s, largely in response to attempts to restrict public social spending. Leeds showed its mettle once again in the spring of 1934 when, for two weeks, tenants on the first council estates in the city waged a rent strike against a Labour council.
One of the potentially most significant of these periodic struggles was overshadowed by the outbreak of war in 1939, yet has been little commented upon in histories of the period. In May of that year, 45,000 municipal tenants in Birmingham began a rent strike against rent increases and a tenants’ means test imposed by a Tory city council. Its package of a general rise, alleviated for the ultra-poor by discretionary rebates, described as a rent pool scheme, was strongly opposed by the labour movement. Trade unions, Labour Party councillors, the Co-operative movement and the Communist Party all worked together on the campaign.
The fight against Bedaux
How had this come about? The personalities at the centre of the campaign were key to its success, not the least the fiery personality of Jesse Eden. (Later Jesse McCullough, she and the family she married into were all life-long members of the Communist Party.) Jesse had been a fairly ordinary young woman, who had worked at the Joseph Lucas motor components factory, filing shock absorbers. She was to lead 10,000 women out on a whole week’s strike, an extraordinary thing to do in those depressed times. Her story was one of accelerated exposure to the need to fight back.
In 1930, Lucas’ Great King Street factory was big; it had a combined total of nearly 3,000 power presses, milling machines, drilling machines, polishing spindles, lathes, capstan lathes and general automatic machines. [Lucas – the first 100 years” Harold Nockolds Vol 1 `The King of the Road’ (1976) David and Charles Newton Abbot p250] It was this concentration of labour, especially since most of it was female with a strong sense of common identity that would prove critical.
One day, in January 1931, Jesse saw someone standing behind her when she was filing and asked what was going on. “They said they were timing me … the fact was that I’d always worked quickly … they obviously wanted to set the time by me and the others would have to keep up with it.” Complaints about being timed on toilet visits were especially offensive to the women and young girls. (School leaving age was then set at 14 years.) A rank and file committee of forty, representing ten shops, was set up. Lunchtime meetings outside the factory built up from a few dozen to several hundred.
Jesse Eden went to the AEU, but it did not then admit women into membership, so she went to the TGWU. Union officials, she said, “looked at me amazed when I brought the application forms filled up”. Most of the women joined the T&G but the union was largely irrelevant to what happened next.
The new payments system introduced in Jessie’s section was named after Charles Eugene Bedaux (born 1887), a naturalised American citizen, who had become rich by pioneering a system of work measurement of work productivity. It purported to scientifically measure the natural unit of production in one minute and rewards were offered for accomplishing more than 60 units in an hour. Oliver Lucas had visited the USA and became a convert of the system. Not the least important factor was that labour costs were reduced by a third! (Subsequently unions would negotiate for a third extra pay on piecework systems with mutuality on timing as a key feature of shop floor bargaining.)
Lucas had imported two Americans to pilot the concept in his electrical works, not a clever move. Spurred on by Jesse, 140 `girls’ refused to carry on co-operating with the project. A work-study engineer was almost literally chased out of the screw machine shop. Another was chased on to a roof. A mass meeting was held outside the gates and a strike of ten thousand ensued.
Rapid attempts were made to stop the strike spreading to the Luvax works at Acton. One of the Americans took a loaded revolver with him, although it was never produced. A works committee there agreed to a trial and though repudiated by the workforce the resistance subsided. Not so in Birmingham. Encouragement to the Lucas women was not so far away. The Wolsey hosiery factories in Coalville, Leicestershire had opposed Bedaux only six weeks before and several thousand were still on strike in January 1932. Whilst the Burnley cotton operatives were on strike in the no more looms campaign. [Birmingham Post 26/1/32 and 29th]
But it was the role of the Communist Party in the city and factory that was decisive. There had already been considerable agitation in the weeks leading up to the Lucas rebellion, which would have had a big effect on opinion locally. On November 26th 1931, the police broke up a street demonstration of the unemployed. The organisers faced a charge of “inciting persons to assault the police”, arising from their speeches urging defiance of the attack on free speech. The Communist parliamentary candidate for Duddeston, Bernard Moore of Avondale Road, Sparkhill, aged 24, a milk salesman got 10 months hard labour, whilst D Victor Shepherd, 33, a labourer, got 9 months. [Birmingham Post January 22nd 1932]
Tom Roberts was one of a number of skilled engineering workers either in the Communist Party or close to it, who sympathised with the female workforce. Faced with a complete stoppage, the Lucas directors backed off. A notice was issued discontinuing the system. “VICTORY! BEDAUX SYSTEM SMASHED!” ran the headline in the Daily Worker on 29 January 1932. Tom Roberts was raised on the shoulders of the masses of workers at the dinner hour meeting when the notice was read. The women poured out of the factory, “released from work shortly before the usual hour”, singing their hearts out as they went. One local paper called it a matter of “reason” but noted the “Lucas Girls’ Joy” in their headline. The directors claimed that the system was “not generally understood”. [Birmingham Gazette 28th January 1932] They retreated to find another way.
A victory march the following day was stopped by the Chief Constable, who was booed by 5,000 massed and ready to depart when he personally read out the banning order. Instead, that night a rally was held at the Farm Street School. [Lucas – the first 100 years” Harold Nockolds Vol 1 `The King of the Road’ (1976) David and Charles Newton Abbot p264] The Lucas strike and the struggles for free speech and for the rights of unemployed workers all coalesced into an angry mood. Arrests were made at a meeting held in Summerfield Park on May 1st. “James Walter Crump of 104 Latimer Street” was seized by the police when trying to hold a Communist May Day rally. [Birmingham Post June 4th 1932] This was Jim Crump, one of the agitators whose leafleting had spurred Jessie Eden at the outset of the strike, who was like Shepherd and Moore to remain a Communist until his death in the 1970s.
Some 250 to 300 Communists and civil liberties activists (the Post’s estimate) were involved in an altercation with the police near the ice rink, as they attempted to march to Winson Green to demand the release of three political prisoners. (The previously mentioned Bernard Moore and Victor Shepherd, along with Maurice Ferguson.) The police in Dudley Road halted the entirely non-violent procession. Tom Roberts was one of four arrested for “disorderly conduct and obscene language” and remanded on bail. [Birmingham Post May 26th 1932]
Arising from a separate incident, a meeting of a thousand or so people, held on Tuesday 10th May, Tom Roberts “of 159 Tavistock Road, Acocks Green, aged 40”, was subsequently fined 20/- for “creating an obstruction in Great King Street”. Roberts asked to affirm, when presented with the Bible, in the witness box. “Why do you wish to affirm?” asked the clerk of the court. “Because I don’t believe in this stuff,” he replied! Alongside him, James Noakes, 32 of 30 Piggott Street, Edgbaston was also fined 20/- for “causing an obstruction by distributing leaflets”. At the very same time, Frank Priestly’s article in the Daily Worker supporting the Invergordon mutiny caused linking local press comment. [Birmingham Post May 12th 1931]
The effects of the Lucas strike rumbled on in other local factories, as rank and file committees tested their muscles. `The Hand Weight’ was the bulletin of the rank and file committee of the scale makers at Hope’s works at Smethwick. 3,500 workers challenged the introduction Bedaux system there when it reduced the old rates of £3 12s 11d by eleven shillings. [Busman’s Punch May 1933] But, from here on, official trade union organisation increasingly took over.
Jesse was subsequently victimised by Lucas and spent some time trying to get and keep other jobs. (R A Leeson, “Strike, a Live History”, Allen and Unwin (1973) pp 130-1; M Glucksmann “Women assemble – women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain”, Routledge, pp 191-2) But she received victimization pay from the T&G and a gold medal from Ernest Bevin. More solidly, having joined the Communist Party during the strike, in due course she was sent by the CPGB to the Comintern’s Lenin School for cadre development in Moscow. The training certainly paid off! Local anecdotal recollection certainly says that Jesse went to Moscow. She does not appear, at least in her own name, in a recently published account of attendees at the school; although several women are listed, of whom few, or no, details are known. Perhaps Jesse’s search for work accounted for some element of anonymity? [J McIlroy et al, “Forging the Faithful: the British at the InternationalLeninSchool”, Labour History Review, Vol 68, April 2003, pp 99-128]
Trade unions gradually, even grudgingly, found themselves co-opted into the mass recruitment of women workers, especially as new industries expanded and rearmament was endorsed. Unionisation at Midland’s factories, such as Lucas, Cadbury, GEC, Courtaulds and hundreds of others, expanded massively. A union such as the TGWU practically owed its growth into gigantism to such a trend. In places like Coventry, with the charismatic leadership of Jack Jones, then the TGWU District Secretary, the mere willingness to accept women into membership saw phenomenal growth. The young women of Lucas, a living example to tens of thousands of others, would mature into a vital force for progressive politics in the community.
Tenants fight against rent rises
As the recession of the Thirties faded and stability of employment resumed, some sections of the working class could contemplate the benefits of a limited degree of prosperity. Politicians thought that this implied a lessoning of the responsibilities of the state, especially as the costs of rearmament was gradually accepted as policy. Council rents became a serious target for cost saving. The motivation was a determination to lower the burden of council `rates’, or local taxation based on property values, on the Tories’ core voters – `middle class’ home-owners. The real concern was that the average level of subsidy from the rates across the whole city was 4/- a week on a single house, a huge proportion of the rent. Altering the structure of social housing costs and achieving as near to the `market rate’ as possible could alleviate the ever-increasing tax on rateable properties.
In 1938, swinging rent rises imposed by the Tory council had caused considerable unease amongst their tenants on the estates. The aim would be to achieve increases of 1/-, 1/6d, 2/- or 2/6d a week, according to size of house, considerable sums as rents would have been in the order of eight shillings a week. (1/- was the numerical short form for one shilling, or twelve old pence, 2/6d stood for two shillings and sixpence. There were 20 shillings, or 240 old pence, or `d’, in a pound. The decimal pound was fixed at 100 `new’ pence.) One shilling would be the same as today’s 5p, but of course, after six decades of inflation, these seemingly infinitesimal sums represented sizeable increments and, to meet them, real hardship in 1939.
The cost of maintaining a family of husband and wife, with three children at a “human needs” level, a standard not many working class families could aspire to achieve, was estimated in 1939 to be around 56 shillings a week (£2.80p). [Margot Heinemann “Wages Front” Lawrence and Wishart (1947) page 40] Most non-skilled workers would be lucky to get £2 a week in wages. At best, a 1/- rise would be around an 8% increase and could represent something like a loss of 2.5% of income.
A rebates scheme provided reductions in rent of from 3d to 1/4d a week for those in easily recognised “poorer circumstances”. Rents on homes in the furthest estates from the city centre, in recognition of the higher cost of foodstuffs to those who lived too far to easily travel to the central markets were reduced. But the Council believed that: “The weakness of this arrangement is that the better-paid tenant has received the same reduction as the less well-paid tenant.” [Birmingham Post Thursday May 4th 1939]
The response of the Council to the strong opposition its approach generated was to send tenants a form whereby their family means could be scrutinised, to enable an assessment of the possibilities for a move to income related rent levels, generally keeping the higher rates. The project to move to `economic rents’ looked doomed, unless some means of getting tenants to agree with a move to an income related approach could be found. But the attempt to get tenants to fill out what amounted to a Means Test form completely failed; so hostile were they to the obvious strategy of the Tory council.
So, in March of 1939, the local authority’s Estates Committee announced a “temporary scheme of rent assistance” of much higher sums, ranging from two shillings to four shillings and sixpence for low-income families. This new, means tested, rebate was, as Councillor Julius Silverman, a left-leaning Labour member, described it a “crude attempt to induce tenants who have withheld their forms to send them in”. [Birmingham Gazette 3rd March 1939] (Julius Silverman, 1905-1996, was to become Labour’s MP for Erdington and Aston for 38 years.)
Although these rises would be achieved in stages of from 3d to 2/6d, but “only if tenants can afford them. The Department would be notifying a large number of tenants that there would be no change to their rent. Only a “small percentage” would actually face increases. [Birmingham Post Thursday May 4th 1939]
The Secretary of the Central Tenants’ Association (CTA), a federation of individual estate’s associations, was Ted Smallbone, a Communist Party member and a former volunteer in Spain with the International Brigades. (Smallbone had also been at the International Lenin School from 1935-37.) [J McIlroy et al, “Forging the Faithful: the British at the InternationalLeninSchool”, Labour History Review, Vol 68, April 2003, p123] He rejected the discounts out of hand, suggesting that as no guarantees existed they were likely to be short-lived anyway. The scheme itself, along with high rents, was the real problem and it could only be done away with by mass action.
The Communist Party had been vainly seeking more unity in action with the Labour Party, so this was a propitious moment to seek such a move in Birmingham. An “Ad Hoc Committee” was set up to oppose the entire scheme and eight Labour councillors, along with a range of other labour movement forces, along with the CTA, joined it. This was, as Ted Smallbone recalled “one of those rare occasions when the Labour Party and the Communist Party were able to operate together”. [“Toolmaking and Politics – the life of Ted Smallbone – an oral history” Howard Williamson, Linden Books (1987) page 66]
Not only was Smallbone the CTA Secretary, Jesse Eden was the “inspiring” Vice-President. She was very much a well-known figure by virtue of her leadership of the Lucas girls struggle. Many of them were now wives and mothers, with responsibility for the home and rents were a key part of that. The editor of the CTA’s journal, `The Tenant’, which had a circulation of 40,000, was “Mrs N Williams … the wife of Bert Williams, the Communist District Organiser”. Other Communists prominent in the campaign were John Corbett, the writer of the 1966 centenary history of the Birmingham Trades Council, George Bridgen and Sid Atkin, a delegate also to the Trades Council (later an USDAW full time official and a life-long member of the Party). No wonder that the agitation was widely attacked at the time as being a Communist conspiracy. Although, as a local historian of the labour movement has conceded: “To some extent it was a red plot”! [George Barnsby “Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939” Integrated Publishing Services (1998) p568]
In anticipation of the increases, the CTA arranged a ballot on the estates on April 1st. This must have been a massive undertaking, for no less than 14,438 people voted for a strike, with a mere 1,093 against. The action began on May Day, when the rise was due to take effect. Tenants refused to pay rent collectors as they made their usual calls. Rents were usually collected on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So, the action would clearly be cumulative in character, as the level of refusal to pay rent grew. Perhaps to defuse the rebellion, the Estate Department of the city council falsely announced that the increase would not now in fact to take place and that collectors would have no instructions other than to seek payments of normal rent.
Some 90% of all of Birmingham’s tenants withheld their rents for ten weeks, even though the struggle was intense, with raids by bailiffs on rent strikers. The aim was to extort goods worth the value of the rent owing, and the police were even drafted in to escort the bailiffs. But, even with such a show of force, this offensive was thwarted; the assailants of working class estates being driven off by mass action. Picketing on council estates was so strict that the press could only visit the no-go areas armed with a permit, which proved that “the bearer is not a bailiff”! (“The Class Struggle in Local Affairs”, `Our History’, CPGB History Group quarterly bulletin, No. 1 Spring 1956, p27)
The highlight of the struggle was on the occasion of the formal opening of the new Council House by the Lord Mayor. Some 8,000 women joined in a `funeral procession’ of a dummy bailiff, which had been `tried and executed’ the previous week. The dummy was `buried’ with pomp and ceremony opposite the new building.
Like any industrial dispute, claim and counter claim was aired in the local press. Wallace Smith, manager of the City Estates Department, claimed that: “A big majority of the tenants paid their rent in the ordinary way, and the opposition to the corporation scheme was far from unanimous.” But the CTA maintained throughout, probably correctly so in the light of how things ended up, that a large majority of the tenants had refused to pay their rent.
Despite its instinctive desire to undermine the tenants’ stance dispute, the Birmingham Post found itself in awe at the magnificence of the rent strikers. The strike “had been organised very thoroughly; 45,000 bills bearing the words, “No Rent: On Strike” were distributed and these were exhibited in the windows of the protesting tenants”. [Birmingham Post Tuesday May 2nd 1939]
The solidity of the struggle made it difficult to find flaws. Rent collectors were met on many of the estates by noisy demonstrators, who followed their progress from house to house, “but good humour prevailed throughout”. Even the manager of the City Estates Department admitted to the “Birmingham Post” that, where rent collectors were met by bands of women and children, they were “not interfered with in any way”.
No violence for sure, but the rent men were humiliated by the scorn of the people of these communities. For example, more than a score of women and their many children on the Glebe Farm Estate in the north of the city received the collectors by performing classic crowd approbation behaviour that would have been familiar to trades unionists from a hundred years before. The women chanted “we won’t pay” in unison, whilst the children beat on trays, saucepans and other kitchen utensils. This was a dispute that husbands and wives indulged in, but the women were firmly to the fore in the cutting edge militancy of it all.
Wherever tenants demonstrated, they carried banners on which were messages urging their fellow tenants to stand firm. In street after street, the pavements were covered with chalked slogans, such as: “No rent to-day”. At Kingstanding and Perry Common, community singing was engaged in, and hand bells and whistles were used every now and again to draw attention to the demonstrations, so as to encourage others to swell the protest. One woman said: “Only those who have obtained a rebate or those who are in arrears are paying, and most of us will hold out to the bitter end.”
The Council’s officials seemed to be trying to weather the storm, hoping that the dispute would go away. “Some of the tenants,” said Smith, contradictorily, “seemed to be afraid of what might occur to them if they didn’t pay their rents”. Then, hinting at intimidation by un-named dark forces, he advised tenants “to pay in the ordinary way and to disregard any remarks they may have heard”. Further seeking to sew the seeds of doubt in an atmosphere of total solidarity, the Estates Manager claimed that “quite a number of the tenants who have exhibited the bill with the words `No Rent: On strike’ have been to the office and paid”. [Birmingham Post, Tuesday May 2nd 1939]
The political establishment pretended that there was no real problem. C C Poole, the Labour MP for Lichfield asked Bernais, the Minister of Health, in the Commons if he knew of the dispute and whether he would inquire into the “great interest manifest throughout the country due to the general raising of the rents of municipal houses”. The Minister, in a written reply, said that he was aware of events in Birmingham but did not accept that “great interest” existed over rent rises. [Birmingham Post, Tuesday May 2nd 1939]
The Estates Department claimed large numbers of tenants presented themselves at the rent offices in Summer Row. The rent paid at head office was very much in excess of what was usually paid on a Monday. “The increase was over 250%”, although the truth is that, normally, probably only a few dozen would actually report in person at the head office, most paid the collector. The department decided to extend these facilities. “Strict privacy will be maintained in respect of any payments so made,” it was stated. “Several letters” had been received, presumably claiming fear of social ostracism as a reason for non-payment. For: “Where willingness to pay the rent is obvious further time to suit the convenience of tenants will in general be allowed.” The strike, it was claimed, lacked real support except from a “small minority of tenants”. The Department ominously claimed its “surprise” that amongst strikers there were some already in arrears. In a blatantly intimidatory tone, it was said that “even employees of the department are amongst those organising the strike. These circumstances must obviously call for further investigation at an appropriate time.”
The full City Council met in this fevered atmosphere, but the Tories were in a solid majority and were in no mood to back down. An amendment to the report of the Estates Committee was moved by Labour’s Alderman Saunders, which sought reconsideration of both the pooling scheme and the increases, but was predictably defeated “by a large majority” at a meeting of the city council on May 2nd.
The next day the main local paper pontificated in an editorial on the whole matter. It thought that if the rebate system would “breed jealousies and foment quarrels among neighbours … then it would appear that the concessions had better be withdrawn”. Yet, in a move calculated to raise the temperature further, the paper thought that, since the means tested scale approach was “a thoroughly reasonable scheme, in all respects agreeable to equity”, the Council should show “no undue tenderness in its necessary policy of resistance to the forces of disorder and intimidation”. [Birmingham Post, Wednesday May 3rd 1939]
By the third day of the strike the Post claimed that the number paying at the head office was eight times as many as usual. To encourage further strike breaking, payments due on the Monday would be allowed up to be made up to 5pm on Friday, such tenants being deemed as not to have been in arrears at all. But, even guessing the strike to be at the lowest possible level, an unlikely situation, there must have been tens of thousands refusing to pay. Eight times the normal level could not have been more than several hundred. [Birmingham Post Thursday May 4th 1939]
The BBC devoted a programme in its Midlands Regional Radio slot to a discussion on council house rents, with a specific reference to the Birmingham `pool scheme’. Cllr T B Pritchett, chair of the Corporation Estates Committee supported the scheme. Mr W H Milner, President of the Birmingham CTA spoke against. Pritchett argued that when a tenant received help from the public funds they should, as a matter of principle, prove that they needed it. “As part of the rents of council houses was provided by the rates, it followed that every citizen, even the very poorest, was helping corporation tenants to pay their weekly rent.”
New applicants for council housing were asked to supply a statement of their income and this was being extended to all existing tenants. 38,000 tenants had applied for a rebate and a large proportion would be granted this, cancelling out the increase. About 10,000 of the “neediest” had already seen a reduction in rent and Pritchett expected another 3,000 to benefit in the next few weeks. He thought the CTA’s approach “unjust, economically unsound and certain to be anti-social in their effect”. The deserving poor needed assistance since council estates faced higher food and transport costs because their local shops were further away from the central markets. [Birmingham Post Wednesday May 3rd 1939]
In response, Milner told the councillor: “You will create jealousy and destroy the feeling of fellowship between neighbours. There is no security today. However high his wage, at the moment, no man can be sure that he will be getting it next week or the week after.” If he fell out of work he would have to come “cap in hand to the Estates Department and ask them: “Will you please be so very kind as to give me a little bit back off my rent… That kind of thing humiliates a man and destroys his independence.”
The CTA believed that the matter should be tackled “at the other end … at the cost of houses”. Far too much money was being spent on inflated land values and on interest charged on loans at from 5 per cent to 6 per cent. That is why “the houses were uneconomic”. Tenants were being asked to “pay money into the pockets of people who had grown rich out of the house famine”. The real reason was that the local authority sought to balance its books by making the council tenant pay more to enable this, rather than the ratepayer. Lamely, Pritchett denied that the Council had only £30,000 in liquid capital at its disposal. [Birmingham Post Thursday May 4th 1939]
The annual May Day parade in Birmingham on Sunday 7th May 1939 was “longer than usual. It was also a little livelier”, due to the adherence of a contingent of tenants chanting, “We won’t pay”. The march of over a thousand took over an hour and a half, winding its way from Victoria Square to Aston Park, where D N Pritt KC was the main speaker at a rally. In a visual demonstration against conscription, a replica of the Cenotaph featured in a tableau “to the unknown workers who died that capitalism might live”. [Birmingham Post Friday May 5th 1939]
A petition with the staggering total of 42,000 signatures was delivered to the council house. The impact of the agitation was such that, on Monday 8th, Alderman A E Ager resigned the leadership of the Labour Group on the city council after supporting the rent pool scheme, against official Labour Party policy. (Cllr A F Bradbeer replaced him.) The Aston Labour League of Youth (LLY) was presumably not the only body to send a protest to the Labour Party National Executive Committee. Perhaps the NEC shrugged off the concern? After all, the official party had disbanded the National Administrative Council of the LLY and cancelled its Easter conference as its youth group nudged so near to the Young Communist League that the LLY National Secretary was to join it. [George Barnsby, “Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939”, Integrated Publishing Services (1998) p567, 568, 569]
At a meeting of the Birmingham Trades Council, H L Gibson, of National Union of Clerks, raised the intimidation and threats of the City Council against its employees who were participating in the rent strike. “A man employed by the Corporation had a perfect right to say that he disagreed with the policy taken by the Estates Committee and the Council, and to take whatever action he thought proper in the matter. It was not for the corporation to victimise any employee for taking a point of view contrary to that of the City Council.” Councillor Thompson had heard of employees being threatened by dismissal. Cllr Walter Lewis was himself a tenant and was most annoyed that he had been debarred from voting on the matter in council, due to a supposed vested interest. [Birmingham Post Monday May 8th 1939]
As May unfolded, tenants and the local authority faced each other in irreconcilable conflict. One or the other had to back down. With the outbreak of war looking increasingly likely, it was not in the interests of Tories to now continue to look for a new regime with regard to council house rents. In the end, a complete victory was achieved for the tenants when, on July 3rd the Council capitulated. The increase was withdrawn and it was announced that rent reductions already made were to stay in force. The City Council even began to contemplate the extension of social housing. The production of fifty thousand municipal houses was decided upon as a short-term goal.
The political impact of the rent strike echoed around the Midlands. Tenants in the Stoke Heath council estate of Coventry came out on strike against high public rents. Consistent Communist agitation had been carried out on the estate ever since a Flemish Marxist had moved there during the First World War. Now, almost universally, cards went up in people’s windows declaring, “Rent man need not call.” A mass rally was held on nearby Barras Green as the increases were shelved. (The local pub, named after the Green, was still being called `The Bolshie’ in the 1960s in homage to these events!)
The experience led the Communist Party to plan for a major expansion of the tenants’ movement. A national tenants’ federation was launched, with a National Convention being held in Birmingham. The tenants’ movement seemed set to project the use of the strike weapon into a major force for the defence and improvement of social housing. Then the war came and the government immediately froze all rents, removing any source of social discontent. The spirit was translated into other directions. But vital lessons about local democracy had been learnt.
That the agitation had been profound and unifying was clearly due to the high level of unity amongst the working class and its organisations. Birmingham had been the focus for a demonstration of the way ahead. Tenants’ organisations continued to thrive and in the 1960s and 1970s, again with Communist leadership in many areas, reprised their pre-war role. Whilst the strategy of organising the unorganised, so demonstrably well illustrated by the Lucas `girls’’ dispute, had placed Communists into the very heart of the trade union movement. Both strands of struggle would epitomise the nature of British Communist strategic thinking in subsequent years.