Just before I joined the Socialist Party, I was friendly with Albert, a member of the Communist Party, a man with a wife and two young children, who has been in the army during the last war and like many others, had come back to an appalling housing problem. Albert and his family lived in two small rooms, and in between his battles with the local housing committee, he would lead all sorts of militant actions—such as “squatting”—and would urge my support in the “day-to-day struggle”. He was evicted from many a vacant property (and sometimes from meetings of the town council too) before he was eventually granted a house on a new estate.
Not a very tolerant man, he was furious when he heard of my decision to join the SPGB “They never do nuthin’,” he shouted contemptuously, and refused to speak to me ever again. Albert has long since moved out of the district and I wonder just what his political views are today—also whether his present home is a council house.
Certainly in those earlier days this would have been the limit of his horizon —what he would have called “doin’ sumthin’” —and we can agree that a council house is preferable to a disused army nissen hut. But it makes a pretty poor comparison with what society is really capable of producing. And there is another unpleasant aspect which these day-to-day strugglers seem to overlook, and that is the role of the local authorities as landlords. They can be just as harsh as private owners, particularly if you fall behind with the rent, and they are not so restricted legally when it comes to the question of rent increases.
I am reminded of this by a recent report that Belfast City Council have decided to increase their house rents by up to 5/9d. a week. When it was debated there were noisy protests from tenants in the public gallery, but the decision went through. Albert would have acclaimed the protest as something concrete; he would have missed the point that this was one result of his previous struggles —council house building has been beloved of the left for donkey’s years— and perhaps the most important point of all would have completely eluded him. It is only workers who have to struggle for, live in, and protest about the rent of, council houses.