labour lost control of the St. Pancras Council in the borough elections of May 1959. In October Lena Jeger lost to Johnson-Smith in the Holborn and St. Pancras (south) constituency. For people to whom St. Pancras is something of a Socialist ikon the defeats were shattering, perhaps the final nail in the coffin of British Socialism. To rub in the salt came the housing crisis and the introduction of a particularly reactionary rents policy by the Tory Council. But St. Pancras seemed to revive again: tenants’ associations, demonstrations, barricades. The militancy of the borough Socialists was traditional—but this switch from retreat to advance, from administrative anarchy to direct action, was perplexing. Exactly what type of borough was this? Granted that a rents policy based on differentials and geared to the government’s campaign against council houses was unpopular—but why, of the 16 Metropolitan boroughs operating such schemes, should St. Pancras blow up?
The reasons lie partly in the borough’s political history, in the nature of this particular housing scheme, and in the social conditions of St. Pancras. Housing in the borough is as old as 1904 and as new as 1960. A large percentage of council houses were bought from private owners, some in areas marked for slum clearance, some as formally requisitioned properties. Out of over 7,500 council tenants, 4,800 live in estates built by the council, while there are over 6,000 people on the Council waiting list. In addition, while some Councils almost ceased to build houses after the Government stopped subsidies (other than for slum clearance) in 1956, St. Pancras continued its flat-building programme (one of the largest in London), put a ceiling on all rents, and fought to maintain the rates at a steady 17/4d. in the £. The problem of continuing with a Socialist housing policy in defiance of Tory controls underlines the real issue in St. Pancras: the rents struggle indicated the strong support for Socialist housing that had been built up through the years, and showed the unscrupulousness of Conservative housing policy.
But St. Pancras has been for decades the centre of left revolt. Most of the major left-wing organisations have either directly originated in the borough or have had strong affiliations with it. Marx worked in Kentish town, is buried in Highgate. During the 30s St. Pancras was the pivot of the popular front movement, and the Communists have always played an important part in local politics. The fact that most left groups have had major figures in the borough has proved to be of disadvantage to the development of a consistent Labour policy. As my local ward secretary said to me, learning of my New Left connections, “That makes one more group. You see, we have Communists, Trotskyists, Fabians, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, several leading Trade Unionists and prominent Labour figures, the Irish Socialists, Eoka, and many more. It’s fun, but it makes it difficult to run a Labour Party under the circumstances. We hope the New Left can provide us with party workers.” Any assessment of the rents crisis cannot fail to take account of the existence of so many groups in one area. During 1958 the borough Labour Party suffered a severe division when John Lawrence and five other Councillors were driven out of the party because of Stalinist policies that had taken five years to be made public.
The Tories introduced their rents scheme in July 1959, and planned it over three stages: increases would take place in January and July 1960 and in January 1961. The aim was to drastically reduce the housing rate subsidy, though the flat-building would continue, achieved by collecting three times the total rent of 1959. The differentials were to be based on one-fifth of the gross income (which included all a wife’s earnings) after deducting £3 15s. 0d. per week for married couples, 5s. for the first child (but not others) and adding between 3s. 6d. and 10s. to the final rent for earning sons and daughters. The scheme was fiercer than those operated by other Tory councils, and went beyond the claim of demanding “economic rent”: most of the maximum rents fixed on pre-war flats and houses rose far above the economic cost of the dwelling: it was in these dwellings that the tenants’ movement proved strongest. In the end the council would not only manage without the subsidy—it would be making a substantial profit into the bargain.
Following the announcement of the scheme, a number of tenants’ associations were formed based on blocks of flats or groups of blocks. Their aims were specifically to fight the scheme, and differed in purpose from the old associations who for years had aimed at providing communal services for members. (One of the largest associations, the Kentish Town Tenants’ Association, found that many of its members broke away to form the militant Christchurch T.A.) By mid-1959, 30 associations (in place of five in 1958) existed. All but the K.T.T.A. decided to form the United Borough Council’s T.A. (U.T.A.) which was to act in the name of the tenants in relations with the council and in drafting policy. Only K.T.T.A. tried to negotiate for its own concessions.
The Labour group decided from the start that tenants should be advised to form their own associations, rather than accept any direct party affiliation or direction. This decision aimed at presenting as wide a front as possible—but was also partly due to the weakness of the Labour machinery: there was no evidence that Labour could “direct” a tenants’ movement even if it wanted to. However, in spite of lack of policy, the decision was a wise one, proving just how far it is possible to work together in opposition to a regime when the issue is obviously both personal and common.
The structure and leadership of the Associations is significant. Support among the tenants varied from almost 100 per cent in the Regents Park Estate to as low as 10 per cent in some of the smaller, less integrated properties. Throughout the period (July 1959 to April 1961) membership was steady, though active interest varied (August— October 1960 the peak period). But a prolonged campaign required key workers prepared to organise and draft policy: wherever these people existed they had little difficulty in rising to leadership in the associations. But the Communist Party’s history as long-term organisers of protest made it inevitable that individual party members would take a large number of the posts and play a major part in directing policy. Today the forcefulness of this advantage is seen in U.T.A., where the three-member executive includes two Communists. The Labour members, unaccustomed to positive action, uncertain of their policy, provided some significant figures, but little drive. The story of the St. Pancras crisis shows how tenants, faced with the alternative of choosing a system of housing conceived of as a social service and one geared to “the market” and the rents racket, had no hesitation in deciding. What rents they were paying before the crisis is irrelevant to the issue (Dumbarton tenants are paying 2s. a week—their council aims to eliminate all rent as soon as possible). What is important is that the battle was fought according to principles of direct action—yet took account of the need to change tactics as the Tories changed theirs. Ultimately the lessons pointed to the failures of the Labour Party, written in terms of people’s needs and conditions.