Sunday, June 29, 2008


Public sector workers are caricatured as an indulgent lot – always complaining about pay while raking in handsome pensions. I don’t imagine Council workers expected their decision to strike to go down particularly well with the Daily Mail, nor the “Taxpayers Alliance” (who have been curiously, perhaps demurely, absent from all those anti-war demos), but all this moralising misses the point.

The majority of lower-paid Council staff – the street cleaners, caretakers, housing officers, benefits advisors, receptionists etc – have seen their real-term salaries stagnate or even drop in the last decade. Such "prudence" was meant to be the vehicle for economic growth (low wages = high profits is as basic a formula for capitalism as you can get). But aside from the fact that this growth has only benefitted the most well-off (nearly half a million older people and children slipped below the poverty line last year), we are now seeing that its foundations have been very precarious indeed – effectively, a bubble balancing on another bubble.

For the majority of public and private sector workers on low to middling incomes, the cost of living is rising exponentially. The Government estimates inflation at around 3% (still almost double what the Chancellor thinks public sector workers should settle for next year), but the Retail Price Index tells a different story. On average, the price of food has risen by 8% and the cost of utilities by 10%. The cost of this lot alone has shot up by 5% in the last year. If the economic forecasts are correct, this same majority of low-earners will continue to get poorer year-on-year. It’s neither surprising nor unwelcome that people are not standing for it.

Capitalism is renting itself asunder because of its contradictions. Neoliberalism had to deal with a particularly knotty dilemma. On the one hand, profits depend on consumers having money to spend; but equally, profits depend on capping salaries. It solved this particular antinomy by the introduction of cheap loans. In Britain, real wages have for the last few years grown weakly, if at all, yet consumer spending has risen by 40% since 1998. Britain’s consumers are now £1.2 trillion in debt.

This has come back to bite the financial sector, with banks like Northern Rock seeing their reckless involvement in the sub-prime racket effectively bankrupt them. And before we’re won over by schadenfreude, the credit crunch is not the result of a few boardroom idiots. It’s symptomatic of a wider crisis. The spoils of capitalism always flow to capitalists, but its debts must be paid by workers. That’s capitalist justice for you – surely more worthy of hand-wringing than a few uncollected bins.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Haven't you heard? Acquiescence is sooo 2007. This season's must-have colours are protest, dissent, and most of all DISOBEDIENCE!

To keep up with the Jones's, why not...

Pick up the licks and learn the slogans!


Smash the fascists!


Get brutalist!

FUTURE OF ROBIN HOOD GARDENS TO BE DECIDED NEXT WEEK...petitions have been signed to retain it, yet 83% of residents want it destroyed. What do you think?

Well, that's what I'm doing this weekend anyway. More exciting than shopping, eh?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


A couple of guys came to the back door and said, “You’d better get out. Now.” Two days later the houses burned down.’ Nothing slows the momentum, the Olympic imperative. ‘The authorities want a big new station on the theatre site, a huge concrete slab over the railway cutting. That slab cost £39 million. How is it going to be paid for? By planning permission to build a 20-storey tower block right there. Hackney will give the developers half the value of the site, along with planning permission. You build high to achieve a small footprint. Most of the development will be buy-to-let investments, offshore finance. Huge amounts of Russian money. Tenants will move in and out constantly. There will be no community at all.’

I almost feel a bit precious for expending seven posts worth of energy on the greasy regeneration of King's Cross, when developers are shooting their collective load all over East London in preparation for the non-event to end all events. When each new development equals a further advance in the neoliberal class war, it's easy to hanker nostalgically for anything old. DV and I watched The London Nobody Knows, archly and awkwardly narrated by James Mason, on Saturday. Perhaps it reminds us that London is always disappearing, and twas ever thus.


We had our own little code to warn them it was a dawn raid and to get out. There's more than one way of getting out of the flats - there's two staircases and two lifts, so you could play games if you knew how. If we were a thorn in their flesh, then good.

This story (to be viewed alongside this) is both cheering and depressing. Cheering, because it shows how altruistic people can be when they are united; depressing because it demonstrates Oscar Wilde’s claim that “charity creates a multitude of sins.” While admiring tenants who unite in order to save their neighbours from deportation, we must also admit that their support only prolongs Britain’s profoundly inhumane policies towards asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, the actions of the Glaswegian tenants prove that the only true guarantors of freedom are people themselves. The counter to this – that only an elected Parliament truly underwrites democracy – conceals whose freedoms liberal democracy really protects. Parliament is, in truth, the underwriter of capital. The state in a capitalist economy is there to maintain stability, which means protecting the freedoms of the market over those of its citizens, so that basic human needs like housing and healthcare become private property to be sold back to us at the market rate.

The out-of-control housing market, which made a few filthily rich and which will make many more filthily poor, is the best example of how a basic human need – a roof over one’s head – has become unaffordable to the majority because it was allowed to get out of hand.

To find a much earlier example of how the government tried to force people outside of the welfare state and into the private market (and how the public resisted it ferociously), we must return to North London in the mid 1950s.


For me, St Pancras was the first example of working class action I saw in England. I remember getting off the train from Scotland in 1960 as a young man who had just moved to England. I stepped out of Kings Cross station and into a battle between mounted policemen and demonstrators outside St Pancras Town Hall. I remember thinking "England can’t be as bad as I thought! (Hugh Kerr, Harlow Tenants Federation)

By 1956, the Tories were in the middle of their post-Atlee period of dominance. Meanwhile, north of Whitehall, after many tedious years of nondescript administrations, the Trotskyite John Lawrence had become Leader of St Pancras Borough Council.

Two of Lawrence’s opening gambits – flying the red flag on the roof of the Town Hall, and introducing a closed shop to Council employees - were seen as gesture-politics . But a third – lowering the ceiling on Council rent payments – anticipated a conflict between the public and its rulers over how public housing should be paid for. During the next 18 months the Tory Government cut housing subsidies, deregulated private-sector rents and compelled Councils to fix rents "at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses". The security of Council tenants was under serious threat.

John Lawrence's own position as a hard-left Council Leader was hardly more secure. In 1958, he and 13 other Labour Councillors were expelled from the party for Communist sympathies. The right wing of the local Labour Party, which had traditionally dominated in St Pancras, returned to power and reversed Lawrence's housing policy. Rents increased marginally - but this was not enough for St Pancras Borough's Tory Party. They proposed a scheme, in which general rents would be increased whilst, in the mealy words of Councillor Prior, "charging no tenants more than he can reasonably afford”.

In 1959, when the Tories took control of the Council, the differential rent scheme became policy. The effect was devastating: overnight most of the rents on the Borough's older estates trebled, and most of the newer estates doubled.

Tenants were infuriated - not only because their rents had soared, but because they knew whose hands their money would fall into. In order to build houses, Councils had to borrow money from banks on the basis of massive mortgages, so that 70% of the money required to build a Council flat was spent on repayments. 4,000 Council tenants, disinclined to line the pockets of entrepeneurs, marched to the first meeting of the newly-formed United Tenants Association in September 1959. It called on tenants to refuse to fill in the means form, called on trade unions and ratepayers to support this action, and called on the Council to drop the scheme.

Support for the UTA quickly grew. Tenants (opposed by the St Pancras Labour Party) continued to protest and campaign. A petition with 16,000 names was sent to the Council. And still the Council would not budge.

At first, the majority of tenants affected by the rent hikes pledged to withhold the increase. But, after a series of blunt letters from the Council, and the threat of legal action, the majority paid their arrears. By May 1960, there were only three non-paying tenants, and by August three tenants were served notices for possession.

Finally, the Labour Party upped the ante, urging tenants to block the entrances when the bailiffs arrived, so that, according to Dave Burn, when the time came for Don Cook and Arthur Rowe to be forcibly removed from their Kentish Town and Gospel Oak homes,

Don Cook had 12 pianos in his flat barricading various doors, as well as other old furniture and doors put against windows, and barbed wire and an old bedstead on the roof to discourage bailiffs from entering that way.

On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants. An intercom system was set up between Don Cook’s flat and the campaign headquarters in another flat in Kennistoun House.

On 31st August when half the tenants in the [Kennistoun] block were supposed to pay their rent, only one old-age pensioner was at the rent office. Banners saying "No Evictions" and "Force the Council to Negotiate" hung from the access balconies and an effigy of Cllr Prior hung in the middle of the courtyard.

On the evening of 21st September – the evening before the eviction – a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside. The police had already banned demonstrations outside the Town Hall; now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested, including John Lawrence, and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.

The mounted police returned to Kennistoun the following day at 5am, preventing tenants from supporting Cook. They were there to protect the bailiffs, who entered the two properties using crowbars, hacksaws and axes. The police attacked any tenants who dared to demonstrate. That evening, 14,000 demonstrators marched down Euston Road to the town hall, where they met a violent cordon of a thousand police.


The St Pancras Labour Party capitalised on the rent strikes, and regained a Council majority in 1963. But this represented no victory for the strikers themselves, or for the Borough's Council tenants. Cook and Rowe were given new tenancies, but the Tories' differential rent scheme remained Council policy. Labour, like the Conservatives, accepted that the only way to ensure that big business stayed in St Pancras was to keep rates low. The high costs of land would continue to be borne by Council tenants.

No doubt many of St Pancras's tenants drew the same conclusion as John Lawrence did in later years: that socialism from above does not work, that it must have a libertarian and individualistic character in order to thrive. John McIlroy's biography of Lawrence suggests that "what is compelling is his insistence that socialists start at the bottom, integrate themselves with existing workers’ struggles, appreciate what workers see as important, listening and facilitating." The hue of politics today is not very different to that of the St Pancras Rent Strikes of the early 1960s. If civil disobedience does make a comeback, we should all be prepared for similar struggles in the future.

Friday, June 13, 2008


The incorrigible Dr Batty, who is now a little older than he once was, emails me with his response to the 7-song meme. The Shara Nelson one, in particular, is quite lovely. And his no-nos are utter guff.

I’ve taken your simple instructions and not been able to follow them. The first two songs are used as a reference point showing how bad music can be, therefore hopefully highlighting how good the next seven are.

Coldplay are bunch of cunts because they endorse Apple (a corporation that supports 60+ hour working weeks and substandard working/living conditions) whilst promoting wristbands or other such nonsense. Coldplay, "Fix you" - if only it were a song about a gangster hit ... it's not ... it’s annoying. From the Coldplay school of entertainment, it's a man with a beard and acoustic guitar whining about water slides, or something like that; I can barely understand a word that is being ‘sung’. He’s very trendy and Scottish, unfortunately listening to him sing causes me psychological distress: Bon Iver, "Flume".

And now for the good stuff.

The Knife, "Silent shout". Truly great song and video.

Yeah yeah yeahs, "Gold lion (diplo remix)". Makes the original sound pants, I have yet to get bored with it.

Roisin Murphy, "You know me better". Disco pop.

Nufrequency Ft Shara Nelson, "Go that deep (Charles Webster remix)". A clean, almost electro sound with a gentle house rhythm.

Frankie Knuckles & Satoshi Tomiie, "Tears". Some cheese in your house.

Trentemoller, "Moan".

Laurnet Garnier, "Panoramix". Big bouncy bass line, the latest release from one of the innovators.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


This just in - our first response to the 7 songs meme! And jolly good it is too:

Dimples D, "Sucker DJ". This must be one of the most innocent rap songs ever written; quite Betty Boo-ey, and it’s my current favourite dance-song-they-would-never-play-in-an-actual-club. And I love the ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ sample.

Nina Rota, "Theme from Amarcord". A bit too Italian for its own good, but works well on an iPod when strolling along on a hot day, and brilliantly as an ironic counterpoint on a shit day.

Kate Bush, "Coffee Homeground". Because it’s funny even on the twentieth listen, and I love the lyric and intonation on “you won't get me in a hole to rot / with your hemlock”.

Verka Serduchka, "Dancing Lasha Tumbai". After watching this year’s pooey Eurovision I was reminded that last year’s runner-up was fun, catchy, mildly daring and even subversive - the nonsense title is designed to sound like “Russia Goodbye”. Not good exactly, but it’s been in my head for much of the early Summer.

Petula Clark, "Colour My World". A song that makes me wish I could hold a tune.

Baby Dee, "The Earlie King". Safe Inside the Day has more brilliant lyrics than almost any album I could name, but it takes a long, long time to adjust to Baby Dee’s dreadful voice. I’m still not there yet, but it works better on this than most, which has the aura of a dark fairy tale put to song.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Polly Come Home". I was dragged to see them live, even though I think the album is a tad overrated, but I do love this heroically slow song. They didn’t sing it at the concert, though.

So there you go. A daft rap, a swoony piece of Italiana, a campy refusal to drink poison, a drag queen, a gay icon, a transsexual and a token gruff male vocal. And Grace Jones was unlucky to miss the cut.


The neurosis associated with the mortgage fixation is depicted in one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. Writing about Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller recalls, "I hoped it was a time bomb under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that sought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last!"

Glyn Robbins makes the most persuasive case for a "third generation" of Council house building I have read to date in this month's Socialist Review.

The decimation of social housing under the right to buy policy was sold to tenants as an opportunity to buy their house outright. Taken at face value, this was enormously short-sighted, for it assumes that home-buyers stay in their properties forever (in practice, first-time buyers climbed aboard the property ladder and, after a few years, sold on to spectulators who bought to rent - yet another disastrous consequence of RTB).

But the Thatcher government's intention was in fact more strategic: to split working-class people down the middle, to erode solidarity. Those who chose to buy their flats or houses were aspirational; those who did not clearly couldn't be helped. The effect, as Robbins points out, is that Council tenants are now fair game.

The fact that calling for a programme of Council house building is seen as radical shows us how far neoliberalism has come. It should be a realistic demand, and as Robbins's article demonstrates, it certainly has logic and common sense on its side. But even in the early days of a recession (whose principal cause was an obscenely lop-sided housing market, run for the benefit of the infinitessimally few), the government will hear nothing of it.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Forgive the desperation, but I have bitten my tongue for long enough. Presumably because nobody likes either me or my jolly music, my opinion on the following question has not been sought:

'List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.'

Well, I'm gatecrashing the party. Here are my 7:

1. Brian Eno, "King's lead hat". A low-down, high-concept scribble of fun, powered by a Roxy-Crimson dual of fuzzy guitars.

2. Alkan, "Allegro Barbaro". See also Alkan's "Funeral march on the death of a parrott".

3. Public Enemy, "By the time I get to Arizona". John McCain ain't the man portrayed as the at the beginning of this video (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nick Griffin), but he voted against the celebration of Martin Luther King at the beginning of the 90s as well. PE started to play this at the Brixton Academy a couple of weeks back, then thought better of it. I think it's the best song off their best album.

4. Elton John, "Pinky". The most over-played song on this list. I'm sorry, but I love him, ok?

5. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, "Ice cream for crow". Just the most beautiful bit of Americana imaginable from 1982, with a firm valediction to finish it off: "now now that's it, now you can go". It was the last piece of music he ever released.

6. R.E.M., "Wolves, Lower". "Gang of Four knew how to swing. I stole a lot from them." This is the evidence - a sweet, nonsensical song from R.E.M.'s first EP, spiked with splinters of gnarled vocals and guitar feedback.

7. The Walker Brothers, "Shutout" (sorry, no link for this one). Completely anomalous with everything - contemporary music, the Walker Brothers oeuvre and output - but a prevision of the Eno-esque beat-poetry line which Scott would explore with Climate of Hunter. Which brings us neatly back to the beginning.

And so to pass the baton on to ... DV, Snowball, Birthday-boy-cum-avant=garde-apostate Dr Batty, our Asia-Pacific correspondent G.P.G. Armour and Bel-Biv-Devoe (or is it En Vogue) freak Sandy Davidson (none of whom, alas, have blogs). I know I'm supposed to send it to 7 people, but my Dad would only fill it up with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and frankly, I don't have that many friends...

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Will have something rather more substantial up after the weekend on the subject of rent strikes, but here's something to whet your appetite.

Behind the rent strikes, Nick Broomfield's project as a graduate of the National Film and Television School, portrays a cluster of people forced into the underclass and obedience to their masters, under the backdrop of the 1973 Housing and Finance Act. The grim-ripper copper who visits the local school in part 3 is especially scary - like Jack Straw if he said what he really thought.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

The most prophetic thing about this film is the lack of support given to the tenants by local Labour Councillors and local industry. The stereotype is of a militant early 70s Union movement - yet this was not to be found in Kirkby. The weary irony is that neither tenants associations, nor local politicians, nor trade unions finished off the Housing and Finance Act. Instead it was finally put to bed by the defeat of the Tory Government at the general election the following year. An even tarter irony is that Labour's re-election signalled the gestation of Thatcher, and consequently the world we find ourselves in today.