The Fight Goes On: Tenant Unions & Building Community Power Outside Parliament

After the election defeat on the 12th of December, the labour movement had many hot takes to make sense of the aftermath. Immediately upon hearing the exit poll, a wave of despondency gripped labour activists. Some, rather unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to find a sacrificial element, blame something or someone for this catastrophe to save us the trouble of bringing into question our strategy. For commentators and armchair critics; politics can be reduced to polling stats, the leader’s speech and an endless discussion of manoeuvring in the established game of political triangulation. To some this is politics, sad and pathetic as it may seem. To others, who saw the result unfold, they knew that their energy was, for the time being, wasted on purely party matters: the question of action became paramount. After the result, the Brighton branch of a community union held a members forum to discuss matters going forward. It had double the usual attendance: far from accepting the next five years of parliamentary will, there was some sign that many very talented activists would continue the struggle outside of parliamentary politics and join the one in civil society itself.

Since its inception in the UK, ACORN (Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) has established itself as a fighting force for the working class at a time of great political chaos. One material issue that unites the largest possible majority of working people is housing. The private rented sector can best be described as a racket of conflicting kingdoms taking rent from those who provide the labour that underpins our society functioning.

What was once secure affordable public housing that was once guaranteed by right was ripped away by Right to Buy. Landlord philanthropy replaced active planning in the housing of the British working class, such generosity was never expected or delivered and those tenants are easy money for the production of nothing. Even the great Adam Smith, the first citation on every armchair economists’ lips when confronting those they cite as economically illiterate, had few kind words to describe landlords:

“Landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce” Adam Smith, Chapter 11 in The Wealth of Nations

A natural monopoly over the lives of the class whose very existence and health the economy depends, directly links the fight for survival with a string of wider political objectives. This is the proving ground for any would be organisation to begin confronting capital directly by defending tenants facing eviction. Far from being merely defensive in nature, this necessity brought together a mix of people who had never been political before. Renters for the most part had few rights, those they did have were out of reach with the removal of legal aid. Local authorities, starved of the budgets necessary to house their citizens, were docked the necessary funds to address the growing housing crisis. Section 21 loomed large over any tenant that dared to inform their landlord about structural issues.

It was the prime location to begin organising a group which had its fair share of militant actions in the past, fleeting and temporary though they were. Our task was to build a permanent power base in this conflict and agitate to address these issues in order to build community power and begin asserting the interests of an organised and dynamic population.

ACORN cited the material concerns of working class and sought through collective power to address them piece by piece. Rather than relying on the philanthropy of politicians and charities, the material and systemic problems that plagues ordinary people are confronted  in turn by applying pressure in the right places; this brings about rapid change to people’s immediate conditions. It was comforting to see that following Labours’ election defeat, the union immediate received 200 new paid members.

What ACORN demonstrates very well is that to focus one’s efforts on a purely parliamentary course is limiting and unproductive. A chance every 5 years to contest elections is not enough for those who live day by day and cheek by jowl. What was needed was an organisation that would demonstrate in real terms the necessity of direct action to address peoples needs. Rather than convince the voting public that a strong leader or flashy public relations campaign would solve their immediate problems, ACORN went from strength to strength, setting up 6 full branches and many more in the pipeline. This was archived by speaking to people in real terms and showing them that collective power – precisely deployed – worked in practice and convinced those who were formally sceptical, that the workers had to use their own agency to guarantee their means to life. Relying on the powers in Westminster to gift reform takes away the inherent agency we have, what differs is how we deploy it.

The old social democratic mantra that a fully enfranchised population could – by sheer numbers – dictate the course of the state and thus defend and advance their interests is failing. With one botched election a Conservative government could, and did, sign away services and infrastructure with a stroke of a pen gifting it to their mates in the private sector. Who upon finding out that there are no spoils from providing necessities, sap it of funds, and leave it to rot.

Now, a purely non parliamentary road to socialism is equally impossible. It is useful to pursue activity to change the legal framework that enables landlords, for example, to exert full control over their properties. However, the primary focus of ACORN remains at present, to build civil power outside of parliament and, when the time comes, to agitate for legal changes in parliament to open the way for the community. If viewed in this manner, the agency remains unhindered by electoral loss, yet boosted by electoral success.

For now, I urge all those who feel truly despondent by the result of the general election to join ACORN and other civil organisations in different sectors to begin the process of building socialism. Revealing the intricacies, weaknesses and methods used by capital. Each case we conduct reveals how the system works, where individual authority and power clash. Adding information to our activity and concrete examples to our efforts. Outside of an immediate election it keeps us active; gaining small victories and furthering the struggle. Maintaining the link to material problems is required more than ever. The ease of online commentary and moral panic only serves to narrow the movement and occupy our time with utopian questions that are neither in reach, nor build capacity to concrete goals.

While the night is young, it is vital that we find other avenues to exert our energy to continue the fight when a chance seems lost. So when the next election comes around we have built the foundations of an organised society that can take capital head on.

Join ACORN and continue the fight.

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