Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Clay Cross Rent Rebellion

It is the 40th Anniversary of the Clay Cross Rent Rebellion. So what was it all about?

In 1970, the Conservatives had a surprise electoral victory. Ted Heath replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister and became known as Selsdon Man, because he adopted a set of free market and anti-working class policies which were in line with what would later be called Thatcherism. The strong reactions against his approach later led him to alter his basic stance via a set of "U" turns, for which Thatcher was later to deride him.

In the year in which the Heath Government was established, council house building was still widespread and only fell marginally short of the total number of houses built under private enterprise for both owner occupation and renting. Furthermore, many Labour Councillors themselves lived in Council houses and understood the needs and interests of communities they were part of.  The Heath Government wished to switch the housing pattern for working class people away from their heavy dependence on council housing.

In pursuing their interests, the Conservatives produced a White Paper entitled "Fair Deal for Housing" which prefigured their Housing Finance Act which received the Royal Assent on 27 July, 1972. Well before the measure became law, the Government's intentions were well understood and were creating considerable concern amongst council tenants and their Labour Councillors. Government subsidies to reduce rents were to end. Councils were to be stopped from supporting council rents from the rates. Then (as a start) most Council Rents would have to be raised by £1 per week in October 1972, which is an amount approaching £11 in today's prices. If a Council failed to act in conformity with these provisions (a) any subsidies for Council House Building would be ended and/or (b) a Housing Commissioner would be sent in to operate the Act. 

On 10th June 1972, 223 delegates from 87 ruling Labour Groups met in Sheffield and carried a resolution by 74 votes to 1 (with 5 abstentions) demanding that "the labour movement shall not take steps which may lead to the implementation of the Bill."

Clay Cross in North Derbyshire had a population of 10,000 and had 1,400 council tenancies catering for over half of its population. Its 11 Councillors were all Labour. On 4th September 1972 it unanimously adopted the following motion - "That this Council will not operate any of the provisions contained in the Housing Finance Act 1972, and the Electorate shall be informed of the decision together with the reasons for coming to this decision and that the officers of the council be instructed not to make any preparations for implementation of any of the provisions of the Act nor to act on behalf of the Conservative Government as a Commissioner".

Initially a total of 46 Councils failed to operate in line with the legislation, whilst 80 Tenants Association were organised to hinder its operation. In the Chesterfield Rural District Area which surrounded Clay Cross their Tenant's Association ran a campaign for the non-payment of the £1 increase which its Labour Council had "reluctantly" introduced. In Dronfield, situated at the Northern End of the Chesterfield Rural District, its Urban District Council was Conservative-controlled and it had jumped the gun with a 50p increase in the April. Its Tenants and Residents Association, therefore, started out with a fortnight's rent and rates strike exactly 40 years ago today.  Dronfield had 1,000 Council Tenancies.

But much larger and immediately to the north is Sheffield where a Coordinating Committee for Tenants, Residents and Community Associations had been established in 1971. Sheffield having 76,000 Council Tenancies. Dispite this bodies' pressures, the Sheffield Council implemented the Act by 53 votes to 42, carrying out a later increase by 45-40. The second increase rested on the votes of 12 Sheffield Aldermen, but at least a non-eviction pledge was given for those withholding the increases.

Powerful pressures were, however, placed upon all the non-implementing Councillors and upon the tenants and residents who withheld rent or rates monies. By January 1973, 32 of the rebel Labour Councils gave up the struggle. 12 held out until later in the year. That left only Bedwes and Machen in Monmouthshire and Clay Cross in Derbyshire as non-implementing Councils. They both had a Housing Commissioner sent to their authorities to enforce the legislation. Bedwes and Machen did not block his work, so they were then out of the struggle. Clay Cross, however, blocked the work of the Commissioner and continued the fight.

Acton was taken against them by the District Auditor who claimed that they were responsible for a shortfall of £69,000 in their revenue account and could be bankrupted and thus debarred from office.  Eventually this position was upheld by the a High Court Decision by Lord Denning on 30 July 1973.

Fresh elections were then held in Clay Cross and Labour took 10 of the 11 seats with a 85% turnout. Local Government Reform meant the Clay Cross Urban District Council would be absorbed into a larger authority a month after the election and those elected would then become Parish Councillors, without Council Housing responsibilities. But for its remaining month as a District Council, the Labour Councillors refused to implement the Housing legislation. This led to the District Auditor surcharging them "jointly and severely" so that their liabilities fell over the £2,000 mark which would lead to their debarment. To save fresh bankruptcies among the second team the local Constituency Labour Party ran a defence fund, which paid off their debts. This fund, however, did not cover the much wider surcharges levelled against the original team of Clay Cross Councillors.

The Clay Cross situation was a matter of continuous dispute within the Labour Party from 1972 until 1978.  In 1972, Conference passed a resolution supporting the local campaigns of tenants, trades councils and Labour Parties "to spearhead the campaign against the Act". But it rejected a move for the retrospective clearing of "any councillors who suffer any penalty through their actions." Yet in 1973 it passed resolutions supporting "opposition to continuing rent increases" and backing Clay Cross. Furthermore, David Skinner one of the non-implementing Clay Cross Councillors stood for the Constituency Section of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and obtained 144,000 votes. This section invariably elected Labour MPs and, although David, wasn't elected it was a telling result which showed strong support in the Labour Party for the Clay Cross struggle. The Clay Cross issue was pursued unsuccessfully at the 1974, 1975 and 1976 Party Conferences. But then in 1977 Conference overwhelmingly carried a resolution stating "This Conference deplores the continuing disqualification from public office of the 21 Clay Cross Labour Party members and demands that the Government introduce a Bill to remove the disqualification forthwith". David Skinner went back to the rostrum the following year complaining that the NEC had not even pursued the matter with the Labour Government.

Whilst the struggle against the Housing Finance Act did not succeed in its objectives, it was part of wider campaigning which led to Heath dropping his Selsdon Man approach. When Labour returned to office there was then a recovery in Council House building, until it was successfully undermined by Thatcher's tactics. The persistence with which the Clay Cross issue was pursued at Conference (especially on the initiative of its Constituency Labour Party) also shows the significance of the democratic arrangements that were then open to the rank and file of the Labour Party, which have since been removed. 

Yesterday evening the Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Group were fortunate to discuss these matters, when David Skinner addressed it on the "40th Anniversary of the Clay Cross Rent Strike". What appears above is, however, my own contribution and not a report of David's fine talk. My main sources have been Leslie Skfair's article "The Struggle Against The Housing Finance Act" in 'Socialist Regsiter 1975' and the Annual Reports of the Labour Party for the period. Anyone spotting errors, should use the comment box below.


Robert said...

Looking back is OK, but what many want to know will labour scrap the new rent regulations which see many people either having to pay for an extra room or in fact be evicted, also the young people who cannot get a home or house or even a flat without sharing, seems nobody is saying.

We are hearing in my area the Labour council is now looking at getting people out of two bedroom homes without having anywhere for these people to go. Also council house sales are on the UK, so much so that I had a letter telling me how much my council house would cost me and how much it could be worth.

New labour we are told is dead, but not buried it seems.

I do not know people in the past were more ready to march to tell politicians to day it seem more people and I'm one just do not bother voting.

I think we are now in an era of Labour and the Tories being oh so close, in which it easier to blame the poor the sick the disabled for the problems then take action against the bankers

Harry Barnes said...

Robert. It is often important to understand the lessons of the past in order to shape how you can relate these to modern circumstances. In fact a lack of understanding about the past within the Labour party explains many of its current shortcomings. When we were hit by an economic crash in 1931, one of the key factors which aided a gradual recovery was Council House building. Labour Councils tended to make effective use of the 1924 Wheatly Housing Legislation to build homes for people in need. This employed construction workers and their suppliers. Then when people moved into new council houses (such as my grandmother and two of her children in 1934) they bought what furniture, floor covering and wallpaper they could - boosting those trades. When masses of homes were destroyed in the war, it was a council house building boom which was a solid part of the post-war recovery. The same approach would work today, with masses of people needing decent homes. It was the 1972 Housing Finance Act which set us on the slippery slope to the current problems you describe. We drew those lessons at our meeting. I am glad that you have given me the opportunity to express this point. Pre and Post War style Council Housing programmes, need to be at the front of Labour Policy. Some of us will use the limited avenues available to us in the modern Labour Party to press the case. But that raises another problem in the modern Labour Party, its former (always linited) internal democratic avenues have been destroyed - another lesson which arises from a study of the 1970s. It is another fight that some of us take up on a persistent basis.

SheepdipBlade said...

I've just come across this. I wouldn't pretend to have the insights of Robert or Harry - but I think my angle speaks volumes about where we are in 2015.

I looked this up as my Uncle was one of the original Clay X Councillors and I wanted to know what had happened. On the other side of my family my Grandfather was one of the Kinder Scout Trespassers who opened the way for private lands to be designated as National Parks.

I now find myself (along with many of my over 100 relatives) estranged from the Labour Party. As Mother says - Its no longer for the Working Man - or as a cousin said soon after New Labour gained power - When the Tories were in you thought Labour were on your side, now Labour are in you know no-one's on your side.

Today we hear Ed Balls stating the Party hasn't "slid to the left". Will they ever grow a spine and speak for me and mine - or will we all end up voting Green? Not that there's likely to be a Green stand in NE Derbys (meaning we're totally cut adrift from the political process)

Harry Barnes said...

Sheepdipblade : The eleven Clay Cross Councillors who took part in the Rent Rebellion were Charlie Bunting (chairman), Terry Asher, Roy Booker, George Goodfellow, David Nuttall, David Percival, David Skinner, Graham Smith, Arthur Wellon, Eileen Wholey and Graham Skinner. Which one was your Uncle?

In the 17 items which I placed on this blog in November and December 2014, I outlined Labour's likely electoral programme. Whilst it isn't clear socialism, it does seem to unlock the door for socialists to press for advances in the future. However, Ed Ball's and those close to him wish to continue with the New Labour tradition and they need to be outflanked.If Ed Miliband is willing to press the proposals the Labour Party has agreed to, this can be done.

I remember the mass of people at the polling station early in the morning at Danesmoor at the 1997 General Election. New Labour failed them - all that those of us who were on the left could do was persistently to rebel. Only when Labour starts to deliver, can that past support return. But in the meantime, Labour has to go back to its traditional support and show that it is moving onto their ground.

SheepdipBlade said...

Hi Harry,

I'm sure he won't mind my mentioning it - Uncle Terry was the Councillor involved.

I absolutely agree that Labour has to speak to its traditional support. It seems unbelievable that in 2015 there is a huge section of UK society who nobody speaks for politically. Wild horses wouldn't get me to vote for UKIP no matter what the papers say about them making headroads into the Labour vote. I would vote Green given a chance - but I'd happily return to Labour if they ever recognise that we live in a society - not just an economy.

Harry Barnes said...

SheepdipBlade : Give my best wishes to Terry. It was a privilege to be active in the NE Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party in the days of the Clay Cross Rent Rebellion.

Labour should launch its Election Campaign today. Much will depend on what you and many others make of it.

It will include -

"An £8 minimum wage.
An end to the exploitation of zero hours contracts.
Freezing energy bills until 2017.
putting our young people back to work.
Paying down the deficit and doing it fairly.
Reforming our banks so they work for small businesses.
Cutting business rates.
Building 200,000 homes a year.
Scrapping the bedroom tax.
controlling immigration fairly.
Tackling tax avoidance.
hiring more doctors, nurses, Midwives and carers.
repealing the Health and Social Care Act and putting the right values back at the heart of our NHS."

Look out for the whole thing. It would be good to know what your relatives and yourself feel about the launch.

Harry Barnes said...

SheepdipBlade : I have run this blog for over 8 years posting 749 items. The above item on Clay Cross has so far received the second highest number of hits at 856. So there is still some interest in the events of over 40 years ago.

Leo Garib said...

Harry, thank you for an terrific blog! It is essential reading for today if we are to learn the fighting lessons of the past, as you say.
You'll note from the date of this contribution that Labour is in the throes of a potential transformation in the wake of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. And at this stage it seems particularly important to explain to hopeful people that Jeremy and Diane's only chance is for people to show support by strengthening their union and other anti-austerity campaigns, etc. There can be no sitting back after marking the ballot paper and leaving it to them or they'll be toast - just as the determination of the Clay X campaign showed.
So it would be great if you would share this and your experiences in a bigger forum, like Facebook. I don't know if you have Facebook but it includes a vast numbers of people arguing and debating Labour's politics and politics in general that would be hugely benefitted by your wisdom and thoughtful contributions. Would you consider joining Facebook, if you haven't already, and helping to shape the very vibrant debates?

Harry Barnes said...

Leo Garib : Sorry, I am not into facebook. At the age of 79 I will just stay with my old habits. Although my eight your old granddaughter could always set things up for me. When she is next to me at the computer she says "no grandda, not like that - like this".

I contribute to another blog here - http://dronfieldblather.blogspot.co.uk/
It shares the same lead article at the moment. I believe that it is easier to use its comment box as you don't need a blog facility - which you seem just to have signed up to.

I comment on numbers of other blogs and web-sites; including the one run by Independent Labour Publications, which is the modern title for the old ILP. I will stick its link in the next comment box.

I went to hear Jeremy Corbyn address one of his campaign meetings in Sheffield yesterday. One of the people I met up with was the former leader of the second team of Clay Cross Councillors who took over (after fresh elections) when the first team were surcharged and debarred from office. So the spirit of Clay Cross campaigning still continues 43 years after the start of that struggle.

Harry Barnes said...

This is the ILP's web-site - http://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/
Type in "Harry Barnes" to follow some of my contributions.

SwishFan said...

The story of the eleven disbarred Clay Cross councillors, and the ten who replaced them, seems to stop after about 1978, at least as far as on-line sources are concerned. Was their disqualification from public office ever rescinded?

Harry Barnes said...

I will contact at least one of them to get a proper update on what happenend. I will then place the information on this thread.

Harry Barnes said...

Hello SwishFan. David Skinner (the brother of Dennis Skinner) was one of the debarred Clay Cross Councillors. He tells me that the bankruptcies were finally discharged in 1980, but then a further 5 year debarment kicked in until a judge even stuck a further year onto this. In 1987 Graham Skinner (another brother) and David Nuttal who had both been debarred were finally elected to the successor North East Derbyshire District Council. I remember that their local NE Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party helped to run a Clay Cross Defence Fund which would finally help to pay-off their debts. The Defence Fund was initialy used on measures to seek to get the 1974-79 Labour Government to legislate to end the debarrments and a resolution to that effect was overwhelmingly carried at the 1977 Labour Party Annual Conference. But it was never acted upon. So the growing fund was eventully used to clear their supposed debts. I believe that the judge who held matters up for a year was Lord Denning. The 1977 Labour Conference resolution on Clay Cross was carried massively on a show of hands. Supporters included the T@G. I believe it was Jack Jone's last vote at a Labour Conference as their leader. In the lead up to the following Labour Conference in 1978, David and Graham Skinner and myself met a sub-commitee of the TUC just prior to the Labour Party Conference to pursue the matter of the Labour Government failing to act on the previous year's resolution. But they would not budge. Then at Conference David as our delegate moved reference back on the appropriate section of the NEC report, but Conference did not carry the proposal. So all that could be done was to use the fund to pay of the "debts".

Harry Barnes said...

For SwishFan : My above comment needs a correction. Four lines from the bottom I refer to the TUC, this was a typing error as I meant the NEC.