THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND RENT & HOUSING CAMPAIGNS
Communists had long been heavily involved in tenants’ struggles and community campaigns, as when, in May 1952, nearly 200 children were involved in a ‘school strike’, after parents were unhappy at a free school bus being withdrawn. The affair was played out on the Harold Hill Estate Hill estate, at the eastern end of Romford, Essex, an overspill for London. Billed as the first major strike of school students for decades, the campaign received a good deal of publicity and was able to make real progress. The Press Officer to the campaign was Ben Cohen, who was aged 42 at the time. Cohen was the long-term branch secretary of the local Communist Party. He, it is said, played a greater role in local campaigns in this part of Essex than any other individual. A constant presence for decades, he both instigated and supported various incarnations of the Tenants’ Association. A school headmaster by profession, he had a strong personal following amongst the tenants’ association, of which he was chair. There were many such people as Ben Cohen in the Communist Party and they were in most Party branches. When a new phase of housing struggle began during the 1950s, Communists would not be found wanting.
The Tories had cut council house building and subsidies and “given complete freedom to private enterprise to build houses for sale, increased interest rates on housing loans for the benefit of the bankers, and cut housing subsidies.” The Party demanded the repeal of the 1954 Rents and Repairs Act, which aimed to increase the rents of 7 million controlled houses. Moreover, where the landlord refused “to carry out repairs, councils should be compelled to carry them out and charge the cost to the landlord, or take over the house at site value”. Communists proposed a building programme of at least 400,000 houses a year for renting, with priority and a special subsidy for slum clearance. “This should come before all luxury building”. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
Larger policies effectively dictated the slow Tory response to the severe housing problems of the time. Following the American ban on trade with eastern Europe had severely affected the price of building trade raw materials, such as timber; whilst interest rate policies were effectively dictated by the drive for armaments production that followed imperialist policies in Korea and Malaya. The Tories raised interest rates in 1952 from 3% to 4.25%, a move that in one fell swoop generally added some 7/- a week to the rent of a typical home. A new subsidy level set at 5/3d, which had not increased since 1946, clearly did nothing to cover the increase. Indeed the government openly accepted that its policy was to force local authorities to build smaller homes, no doubt to fuel a hoped-for demand for buying properties amongst the working class. The motivation was, naturally, to assist companies such as Wimpey’s builders to boost profits, which that firm had been able to do by no less than almost 26 times over between 1950 and 1951. In that one year, Portland Cement had seen profits leap by 60% and Marley Tile by 40%.
A particular problem existed with the way that government policy funded the development of the many `New Towns’ that had been planned for the south-east of England. During the course of 1951, those who had accepted the excitingly-put offers to move to Crawley found themselves “defrauded of what they were promised”. New town rents were generally 10/- a week more than similar houses in many London boroughs, which often saw housing as a social policy necessity. Crawley was effectively run by a Development Corporation and this could not seek to balance the books by generally levelling the cost across ratepayers, even if it wanted to. The entreaties of both the Parish Council and the Rural District Council to modify rent policy had been simply ignored and the effect was to force families renting homes to pay more than a quarter of their income just to have a home. As the Crawley Communist Party put it in 1952, “(t)his year the government will spend as much on armaments every fortnight as on all housing subsidies during the whole twelve months.” [Crawley Communist Party leaflet, “Rents can come down”, August 1952]
In 1953, the local Party set out a comprehensive critique of the situation prevailing in the new town, now heading for a population of 20,000, and proposals for remedy. Instead of the wondrousness promised beforehand to those who moved to Crawley, rents had gone up three times in two years and much of the town’s infrastructure was still unfinished, with prefabricated huts dominating the landscape. [“A Socialist policy for Crawley – programme of the Crawley Communist Party”, April 1953]
During 1953, the Crawley Tenants Association produced its own two-penny eight-page magazine. By now the entire local labour movement, including the Communist Party, was represented on a Rent Committee set up by the CTA; as well as the Association’s neighbourhood groups, some seven local union bodies, the Co-op Women’s Guild and the Labour Party all sent delegates. Another five local unions supported the aims of the CTA. [Crawley Tenants’ Association Newsletter, September 1953, No 4]
Communists in Crawley pushed their ideas for the New Town in a particularly vigorous way; arguments for a new maternity hospital, libraries, new schools a community centre, playgrounds, a swimming pool, and even “an experimental nursery school” resonated with citizens in the longer term with the actuality of need in a way that the rather more esoteric claims for the wonders of New Towns did not. So strong was the appeal that, by 1954, the local newspaper was seriously describing Communism as “Crawley’s No. 1 Talking Point”. Local dignitaries were “never weary of asserting” that the Communists were behind every broad people’s campaign. In the first parish elections the first Communist candidate ever to stand in Crawley, Dick Vines, obtained 119 votes in the Central Ward. [Communist Party Special, “Crawley – the way forward”, April 1954]
The legislation that had removed rent restrictions from council tenants and took away their security of tenure now began to bite. In Crawley, the Communist Party branch had been campaigning on rents since the previous summer, with a leaflet to every home, `Rents can come down’, focused on interest rates, subsidies, and building costs, linking these with Tory military expenditure and colonial wars and urged the Crawley Tenants’ Association (CTA) to become more and more active. [See: David Grove, “Crawley Communist Party in the 1950s; A Personal Memoir”, Our History New Series No 3, Communist Party (2007)] A major campaign now ensued when, on 17th October 1955, five thousand Crawley tenants received notices to quit with offers of new tenancies at higher rents. Two thousand tenants attended five neighbourhood meetings during the week following the notices. On the Saturday there was a spontaneous demonstration of several hundred outside the housing office. Shop stewards called for industrial action. On 26th October, at about 11am, a brass band marched down the spine road of the new industrial area, and as it passed each factory most of the workers came out and joined the procession. As David Grove, a participant has recalled, “It was a rare example of an industrial stoppage on a non-industrial issue. Building workers and housewives joined in; 5,000 people with hastily made banners and placards marched to the town centre; a mass meeting unanimously agreed not to pay the increases. Next week a clear majority of tenants paid only the old rents.” This magnificent response of tenants won them a three-year spell of freedom from rent increases, a higher subsidy and a slightly lower interest rate. But by 1957 the policy of inertia had seen house building at a rate of about a quarter that actually needed and significant infrastructure problems and absences still existed in social and welfare provisions in the new town. [David Grove election addresses – “Communist Policy for Crawley”, May 7th 1959 and May 12th 1960]
Whilst most local Labour Parties were largely drawn to working with Communists on such peoples’ campaigns as that in Crawley, the heavy hand of Labour’s national organisational bureaucracy, which specialised in periodic anti-Communist witch-hunts, often inhibited many local office-holders from practical work, unless it could be disguised as totally broad anti-Tory action. The difficulty for Labour’s leadership was that the best electoral performance they had ever achieved, in the 1945 general election, Labour had stood for public ownership, peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and major social welfare advances for ordinary people and, with such policies, it had swept the board. Gradually, until the rightwards drift became heady, Labour had adopted policies so near to those of the Tories that they were virtually undistinguishable in practice. In every election since 1945 – in 1950, in 1951 and now in 1955 Labour had lost seats. Where Labour and Communists stood shoulder to shoulder in opposing the worst effects of Tory and employer hostility to working class, the movement thrived. The obvious conclusion from this was simply too much for the blinkered visions of most of Labour’s leaders but even the most anti-communist of Labourites now asked themselves the question `What was going wrong?’.