Guaranteed shelter, afforded to hundreds of thousands of renters by the COVID-19 eviction ban, has now come to an end. In its wake comes a rising tide of eviction and homelessness. If a recent string of interviews exposing the derangement of the rentier class is anything to go by, it’s a moment over which landlords have been salivating: over the past two weeks, they have gleefully issued 400,000 tenants with eviction notices.
With a government impervious to the most milquetoast calls for renter protection, some have looked to the Labour Party. They have been disappointed. On May 14, 2020, with the first deadline for the government’s eviction ban looming, Labour’s former shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire called a “cancel the rent” policy for people whose income had been slashed by the pandemic “un-Labour” and “really regressive.”
“Whether it’s moral or not,” she said, “There is a legal structure underneath this. A tenant has signed a contract with a landlord. Even if it’s a rubbish contract, it’s still legally binding. There is no such thing as canceling it.”
A cursory history lesson would have taught her that she was, at best, one for two. She’s right that Labour’s radical renting history is now behind it, but anti-landlordism was once a feature of the political mainstream.
Old Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan complained of landlords pocketing a 40 percent increase in controlled rents without “putting a penny piece into repairs,” a feeling that was carried down to Labour’s grassroots: in the 1940s, while a councillor in Birmingham, soon-to-be Labour MP Charles “Jim” Simmons argued slum landlords should receive no compensation if their properties were compulsorily purchased, describing these homes as “diseased meat.”
Faced with a Tory plan to roll back rent controls, Nye Bevan delivered an impassioned speech backing municipalization, saying: “[the] private ownership of rental property . . . results in a progressive deterioration of an invaluable part of the social equipment.” Even right-wing revisionist Labour MP Tony Crosland described landlordism as “not an appropriate form of homeownership in an advanced society.”
The problem, like so many, started with Thatcherism. Before 1979, past Labour and Conservative governments — despite their differing emphasis on public or private provisions — had accepted that the government should have an interventionist role in housing, and the proportion of households living in the private rented sector when Margaret Thatcher came to power was below 10 percent.
But the Thatcher administration stripped away rent controls, transferring more than 1.5 million publicly owned homes into private hands through Right to Buy, and beginning a forty-year bacchanal of exploitation. In fact, 48 percent of people in the UK under the age of thirty-five now live in privately rented accommodation, and according to Generation Rent, a huge 14 percent of privately rented homes fail safety standards.
Against this backdrop, the media has manufactured consent by obscuring the class relationship between rentiers and working people and depicting landlords as tireless laborers, selflessly cleaning up after their feckless tenants. The hoarding of housing and the casual exploitation of renters for the maximum profit is now considered a very normal source of income: in fact, 110 elected MPs are landlords.
Some will feel that even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party fell short on this issue. While pledges to scrap no-fault evictions and introduce property MOTs for landlords are key to stopping the worst abuses of the landlord class, Thatcherite doctrine is so ingrained that the prospect of ending landlordism altogether is seen as unworkably radical for electoral politics.
That reality, in combination with Keir Starmer’s depressing march back to the wasteland of the political center, means any path to landlord abolitionism must diverge from the Labour Party. Conscious of this, a number of tenant unions have recently been growing in strength, looking to tackle the injustices ingrained in the private rental system through grassroots organizing.
“We want to help people build power bases in their communities,” explains Jack Yates, activist and communications officer for the radical renters’ union ACORN. “They need to exist outside of parliamentary politics. That way, landlords can’t come into people’s homes and rip them apart whenever the political winds change.”
Those political winds are particularly subject to the influence of the powerful. According to Gordon Maloney, national committee member for Living Rent, political parties have seen concentrated influencing campaigns from landlords’ associations throughout the pandemic, which aimed to obscure the behavior of the rentier class.
“We’re fighting the battle against landlordism on two fronts,” says Maloney. “Public opinion is very much on the side of tenants. But there is this other discussion happening behind closed doors. Landlords’ associations — and even charities — have bent over backward to highlight the few positive examples of landlords who behaved with empathy by issuing rent rebates or rent reductions, many of whom are now asking for that money back.
“That’s given politicians a really warped view of landlords’ behavior,” Maloney continues. “They think they did what they could at a difficult time. We’re not having a bar of it, but because they won’t have the conversation publicly — when they know they’ll lose — it’s very difficult to counter the narrative.’
Despite that challenge, Yates attributes the success of organizations like ACORN and Living Rent specifically to their position outside of parliamentary politics.
“We’ve seen a rebirth of grassroots organizing since the pandemic began, and unions like ours are leading the charge,” he says. “You just have to look at what’s been achieved outside of Parliament this year. The Tories have pushed back the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and they’re scrapping ‘no fault’ evictions. Those victories were won by people in the streets, not by MPs.”
Yates is right: if we are to break landlordism’s hold over our social psyche — to make the case that profiting off another’s basic need for shelter is wrong — then the battles will take place on the lines drawn by organizations like ACORN and Living Rent. But the anti-landlordism that once existed in electoral politics should not be forgotten. It’s a base we can and should build on to make it clear that a political system comprising and catering to landlords is a choice — not an inevitability.