The Truth about the Housing Question
The present Government, like the preceding “Labour” Government, has been making a pretence that they have at heart the welfare ot the workers, especially with regard to the housing conditions. How eloquent both Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the present Health Minister, and Mr. Wheatley, his predecessor in that office, can become over the deplorable housing conditions of the workers ! And what grand schemes both can produce to solve the trouble ! And yet the housing problem is as troublesome as ever. Why ?
Before answering the question, let us see what the opponents of Socialism—the Conservatives and the “Labour” Party—have to say on the matter. In that Conservative paper, “The Sunday Chronicle,” March 1st, Mr. Harold Begbie has an article entitled “The Selfish Builder”; from it we cull the following –
“Of all the sections of Labour which have thus paralysed our industrial activity and brought incalculable sufferings and sorrows on the head of the working classes, none stands so clearly and so cruelly guilty as that section of Labour which controls the building trade. If the nerves of the mothers of the nation are breaking down, if their children are feeble, dispirited, and mentally dull; if there is more bitterness and cruel misery in our cities than ever existed heretofore ; and, if, among other tragic sins, the deadly crime of incest is hideously increasing, then the guilt for these things lies at the door of those cadging politicians of Labour who have encouraged the operatives of the building trade to make a selfish use of the nation’s direst necessity.”
Mr. Begbie, in his article, is evidently not concerned about proving that the building trade operatives are responsible for the lack of houses, he is told to “sling mud” at the working class and is paid for it. Now it is the building workers; sooner or later it will be another section. In any case Mr. Begbie is expressing the view of the employers. What the Master Builders’ Association plainly want is to speed up the builders’ operatives to the highest possible pitch, to bring in a system of dilution to the industry and flood the labour market with cheap labour power. In other words, the employers want a larger or speedier output at a relatively reduced wages bill, so as to leave them a larger margin of profits. Wherever the workers have not been strong enough to resist this, or where they have been gulled by “Labour” politicians, and trade union leaders, on patriotic grounds, like the engineers during the war, to accept such a system of dilution and speeding up, then has it spelt disaster, in every instance, for the workers.
The “Labour” Party hold the view that the shortage of houses is due to the failure of private enterprise, and that national and municipal enterprise should take its place, failing this the State should subsidise private enterprise by money grants.
The national and municipal housing schemes of the Labour Party have not succeeded, for the same reason that other schemes fail. Capitalism, whether private, municipal or under State ownership, has no mere ethical or “spiritual” basis, its basis is material profit, obtained by the exploitation of the workers and realised by the sale of goods. If there is no sale there is no realisation of profit, and it is solely because the great majority of the workers can neither buy or even rent a newly-built house that the output of houses is restricted. This happens in all spheres of production. Neither the Conservative Party nor the “Labour” Party will reveal the real cause of the lack of new houses for the workers. They will lie and bluff, and say how greatly they sympathise with the workers, and both will blame the shortage of the skilled tradesmen—bricklayers and plasterers—as the real trouble. In fact, no employers’ henchmen have worked harder for the dilution of labour in the building industry than the so-called Labour politician—the bogey of Mr. Begbie.
Now if one were to go to the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives instead of to the capitalist and “Labour” press one would find, as their secretary has repeatedly pointed out, that bricklayers and plasterers are on the books as unemployed, despite the cant of the employers about the shortage of skilled labour.
Moreover, is there any cry about the shortage of labour when a warehouse, mill, factory, bank, theatre or cinema is wanted? No ! These jump up like mushrooms overnight.
On this matter A. Sayle, formerly Housing Sub-Inspector in the Ministr y of Health, says :—
“In one town in which delay was said to be due to lack of skilled labour, much of which was then concentrated on building a new cinema, it transpired that the owner of the cinema was the chairman of the Council responsible for restricting just such ‘luxury building.’” (“The Houses of the Workers,” pages 117-118.)
So much, then, for the bogey of shortage of skilled labour.
The master builders will not concentrate on the building of houses for workers because there is no effective demand for them. That and that alone is the reason, and this again is due to the impoverished condition of the working class who are compelled to submit, in capitalist society, to a lowering status of existence. Workers may require food, boots, clothing, etc., but if they have not the means to buy these commodities, sooner or later production of these commodities will be restricted. In like manner, if the workers require better houses, that in itself is not enough, in capitalist society, to produce them. The question is : Have they the means to pay a higher weekly rental, let alone buy them? We shall let Mr. Sayle answer :—
“These facts (unemployment) and others which emerge from them have a direct bearing on the question of rents. If rents of 10s. and 12s. 6d. per week, plus rates, were within the means of men earning £5 per week (and the number of these was never as large as it was represented to be—the majority even of skilled fitters, miners, boot operatives, and jewellers earned wages nearer £4 than £5 per week)  they were clearly beyond the means of men earning £3 or £2 with the cost of living under other heads still 100 per cent. above pre-war level. The position taken up by the Ministry in the early months of 1920—that high rents were justified by high wages—had to be formally abandoned after the result of the appeal of the Leeds Corporation against the Ministry’s insistence upon such rents.” (A. Sayle : “The Houses of the Workers, page 169.)
So it is plain if high rents cannot be charged, neither the municipality or the State are very keen on venturing on the production of houses for workers; and even if subsidised by the State, private contractors find it more lucrative to build palaces than houses for workers.
Generally speaking, the chance of poverty-stricken and frequently unemployed workers obtaining better housing conditions is a practically hopeless one. The capitalist class, assisted by “Labour” politicians and trade union leaders in forcing down the wages of railway workers, miners, engineers and workers of various industries to their present degraded level, have prevented the workers from getting even many necessaries of life, to say nothing of comforts.
The Housing Question is insoluble under capitalism, and like all other “social problems” can only be solved by social ownership.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, May 1925)