How We Beat the Bankers

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The Birmingham Defend Council Housing Campaign recall how they inflicted a serious defeat on New Labour.

Last year John Prescott announced the 'death of council housing'. Last month 40,000 Birmingham tenants stuck two fingers up to him. Birmingham City Council spent two years and over £36 million (of tenants' rents) on their slick 'vote yes' campaign. Birmingham has the largest number of council homes in the country and despite the council's one-sided propaganda campaign over two thirds of tenants voted against them.

Campaigners were ecstatic with the victory. The local papers ran stories describing a crestfallen David Thompson, director of housing and one-time king of stock transfer, as tenants caught him on the town hall steps and put a loudhailer in his face, blasting the words, 'We wiped the floor with you.'

We are writing this because we hope other campaigns may benefit from some of the lessons that we learned. We managed to build a campaign that combined the best of both worlds--well rooted tenants, many with trade union backgrounds, complemented by trade union branches well versed in campaigning.

We based our campaign on the streets, or more accurately on the estates. In the two years we held over 30 estate-based meetings (many pensioners would not travel into town for a meeting) attracting well over 1,000 tenants. Our team organised them well, so they were big and well attended, with good platforms. We invited local tenant activists and local Labour councillors. We were also helped by a local celebrity who chaired the meetings. He wanted the publicity to help his campaign to be mayor--we wanted him to pull in the tenants. Our platforms sometimes had speakers from all the parties but our main speakers were always tenants, normally elderly.

The tenants came across as warm hearted and honest, Old Labour to the core. This was in sharp contrast to the politicians and rofessional 'independents' whose pictures of a rosy future lacked all credibility. Each meeting ended with a vote by a show of hands. This gave an overwhelming impetus for our arguments and helped solidify tenants' resolve to vote no.

The best campaigns are where there is the combination of tenants, trade unionists and socialists. Tenants provide the campaign with credibility and the estate contacts, and trade unionists provide skills, support and facilities like photocopying, printing, leaflet layout, etc. Most importantly, these are campaigns that we can win.

Our meetings became so successful that the council sent spies. At one a professor who was a prospective New Labour councillor was caught trying to copy down the attendance list. Once he was caught with the list the meeting voted unanimously that he be banned. It was a humiliating night for that New Labourite.

As well as our meetings we did intervene and keep up the temperature in other ways. This included flyposting empty properties with the sale price of the houses (£159 each). We attended some of the small council and 'independent adviser' organised meetings--when they tried to remove us we would ask the tenants to show their hands if they wanted us to stay--we never got kicked out once. Campaigners regularly phoned local radio shows and wrote letters to the local press. As a result the initially hostile local media were forced to reflect the widespread view against transfer.

The local Unison branch gave us fantastic support throughout. When the ballot was close, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis came down to help the campaign. Their general political fund paid for adverts in the local papers, and they got us an open-top bus with a megaphone to tour estates for over a week. Ucatt, the building workers' union, paid for extra days. We had the chance to get to every home--and we took it. When we returned to town we toured packed shopping areas.

We argued that the transfer was a 'one-way ticket' to a housing 'Railtrack'. The council's campaign quickly descended into farce. Council workers blew the whistle when they tried to rig the outcome of a sample poll to show a majority for transfer, when tenants were saying they were against the sell-off. Staff were paid £18.50 an hour to tear down our posters and remove stickers, and calls poured into the local radio condemning the council and complaining that other advertising was never taken down but ours always was.

The end of the campaign was run like we were fighting an election. We toured the whole area on the open-top bus with a megaphone, which proved fantastic. With it we reached many of the peripheral estates and returned back to town down the main high street, blasting out to the packed shoppers. It felt like being on the FA Cup winners' bus. At the end one simple slogan did so much damage to the council--'If you don't know, then vote no.'

Since the victory one of our activists, Pat Morrin, has been selected as a Socialist Alliance candidate in his area--where there is lots of council housing--with the support of the key activists and the chair of our campaign. This time we are taking the fight to them.