Dispossession: The Great Labour Party Swindle

Tonight Paul Sng’s film Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will have what I think is its last screening of the year at the Chelsea Curzon cinema, and to the excitement of many what the publicity calls ‘the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn’ will be in attendance.

This is quite a turn around, as when the film first came out back in March it was attacked by Labour activists as ‘anti-Labour’. Unite the Union, which largely bankrolls the Labour Party and Corbyn in particular, even called for a picket of the screening at the Brixton Ritzy cinema, as they claimed it broke the call by staff there, who were striking for a living wage, not to use the cinema, when in fact Paul had already approached them and been given their permission to show the film. As anyone who has opposed them knows, this is typical of the way Labour activists operate. However, that was then, and this is now. Paul has always been very open that the film is not a political film and on more than one occasion has publically denounced Corbyn. So it’s also quite a turn around for him to be showing his film to him now.

‘But what’s the problem?’ you may ask. ‘Surely it’s a good thing that the Leader of the Labour Party and possibly the next Prime Minister of the UK sees this film?’

Well, when we saw a test screening of Dispossession we were struck by how it was made up of talking heads that belonged mostly to the so-called ‘experts’ (including us), and contained almost nothing of the street protests, direct action, occupations and confrontations with councils that, for instance, are recorded in the new film by Nikita Woolfe, Concrete Soldiers, which had its premiere last week and is now being shown in cinemas across London. That’s okay, there’s no point in criticising a film for what it isn’t, and there’s only so much one film can contain. Dispossession does an excellent job of getting across a huge amount of information about the causes of the housing crisis. What it lacks are any solutions to that crisis, including those proposed by ASH, which we tried and failed to get into the film. The ending of the film, in particular, with an elderly couple from Cressingham Gardens estate declaring their intention to ‘fight’ was almost pitifully weak as an indication of either the widespread opposition to estate demolition or the enormous economic and political forces that opposition faces.

As anyone who has seen it will know, I was interviewed for the film, and at the end of answering a set of written questions Paul asked me if I had anything else to say. I said yes, and went on to talk about the leading role of the Labour Party in estate demolition and the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to stand up to the Labour councils implementing the schemes, which currently number over 150 in London Labour-run boroughs alone. None of this footage made it into the final cut. Unfortunately, this absence of a political position gives the film the character of a lamentation rather than a call to arms, which partly accounts for the wide acceptance it has had, and which I imagine Paul would argue it wouldn’t have if it was overtly political.

And he’d have a point, but the absence of a political position is itself a political position, and into this political void the Labour Party has now entered. The conclusion of Dispossession has a series of talking heads arguing that the only way to solve the housing crisis is through changing policy – for instance, by removing the government cap on borrowing for Labour councils, as if they are just dying to build more council homes if it wasn’t for the Tories (a lie ASH’s designs have exposed). And although it’s never explicitly stated, this inevitably suggests a change of government.

Almost from its first screenings Dispossession has been described as ‘the most important film since I, Daniel Blake’, a quote which has been included on every poster and advert, and which inevitably aligns it with the avidly Corbynite Ken Loach and a film which refused to hold the Labour Party accountable for any of the injustices it documents (such as why the cockney female lead has been sent to Newcastle in the first place, like so many other single mothers whose homes have been demolished by London’s Labour councils). Quotes by the actor Michael Sheen and the journalist Lynsey Hanley, both fervent Corbynites, are similarly prominent on the posters advertising the film; the film itself is narrated by Maxine Peake, another Corbynite; and the post-screening Q&A sessions in London have regularly included the journalist Dawn Foster, one of Corbyn’s loudest cheerleaders.

So what can we expect to hear from the Leader of the Labour Party for more than two years now after tonight’s screening of Dispossession? Obviously both he and his PR team will have seen the film in advance and prepared a response, so what will it be? What will he say that will be lapped up by both his Momentum groupies and the more critical housing campaigners and residents facing the demolition of their homes by a Labour council?

Well, what did he say about estate ‘regeneration’ at the Labour Party conference in September? He gave us two promises, or what he called ‘markers’:

‘First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before. No social cleansing, no jacking up of rents, no exorbitant ground rents.’

Unfortunately, this doesn’t contradict anything said to residents either by Labour councils when demolishing estates or the London Labour Mayor in his Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration. It’s a standard promise which is simply ignored when the time comes to honour it or interpreted as the ‘Right to Return’. As a promise it’s proved meaningless.

‘And secondly, councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place. Real regeneration, yes, but for the many not the few.’

As we know, this too was ignored by Labour councils, not in the future, after they’d demolished residents’ homes, but the very next day, when Council Leaders and Cabinet Members for Housing from Southwark to Haringey rejected it. Indeed, Sadiq Khan had already denounced the use of such ballots as they ‘risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways over many years into a simple yes/no decision at a single moment in time’. Much like a General Election then.

But you will say: ‘But that’s the Blairite councils! And as the deselection of pro-HDV councillors in Haringey has demonstrated, Labour is changing from within, from below, becoming more like Momentum, and by the time Corbyn is elected Prime Minister the party will have returned to its socialist roots!’

That’s a very heart-warming narrative, and one Momentum was founded to write and promote. However, two days after Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference his Housing Minister, John Healey, whom Corbyn personally thanked for his work during that speech, rejected Corbyn’s call for rent caps and wrote that his statements on estate regeneration supported ‘Labour’s commitment to back councils to regenerate estates and build much needed homes.’ And in case we were mistaken about Corbyn’s two ‘markers’, Healey clarified that ‘these are not rules to tie the hands of councils who are regenerating now under the pressure of Conservative constraints and funding cuts.’

So, of what political value will the content of whatever Jeremy Corbyn says tonight at the screening of Dispossession have? Undoubtedly, the same as the content of what he said at the Labour Party conference. But what propaganda value, then, will the statements of Jeremy Corbyn tonight have? Inevitably, the same as they did at the Labour Party conference, which is to stop criticism of Labour Party policy on housing and instead lend our voices to the growing chants of ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’

Back in the 1980s there was a term in critical theory that seems to have fallen into disuse these days. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it so accurately described the means by which capitalism appropriates to its own ends all and any opposition to it. That term is ‘recuperate’, in the sense of recovering a loss, and which describes the dialectical process by which something is first negated, then assimilated, and finally turned into something else – something new, something in which what was opposed to it has now become part of it. Given the political commitment of the Labour Party to market solutions to the housing shortage, it’s not surprising that recuperation exactly describes the process of estate ‘regeneration’, in which council homes are demolished, rebuilt and renamed, and council residents dispossessed, evicted and replaced with a new clientele. Thus, under Labour council estate regeneration schemes, Myatts Field North in Lambeth has been recuperated as Oval Quarter; King’s Crescent estate in Hackney has been turned into Clissold Quarter; and the Ferrier estate in Greenwich has been transformed into Kidbrooke Village.

But ‘recuperation’ also describes how, since 2015 and the street protests, occupations and direct action that characterised what we then called the ‘housing movement’, the Labour Party and its activists have worked to negate, subsume and turn opposition to its estate regeneration programme into something new – a new kind of politics, a politics that has appropriated the language of street protest for the ballot box, a politics for the many voters not the few activists, a politics for the Labour Party. And the presence of the Leader of the Labour Party on the panel at tonight’s screening of Dispossession is part of that process of recuperation.

Given the success that process has had, and to which the recuperation of Dispossession is just another example, it’s unlikely that anyone at tonight’s screening, either on the panel or in the audience, will have the courage to do so – or indeed be allowed to by the Momentum security that surrounds and protects Corbyn from criticism; but if anyone is looking for questions to pose to the Leader of the Labour Party about his party’s record on estate demolition, here are a few we asked him back in March 2016, and which he and his party have still failed to answer. Dispossession of opposition is the great Labour Party swindle.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

P.S. The following day, given the excitement leading up to his appearance at the screening, social media was noticeably silent about what Corbyn had said, with lots of photos posted but very few words. Only the Daily Mirror, as far as we could see, contained any account of Corbyn’s response, which they said ‘stopped short of fully condemning the councils’. Instead, as predicted, Corbyn limited himself to repeating his empty promises at the Labour Party conference:  ‘I hope those councils will take into account the points I put and the view that was put by a very large majority to a resolution that was agreed at Labour Party conference in September’. Hope and faith, it seems, are the twin pillars of Labour’s housing policy: faith in Corbyn to transform Labour; and hope that the Labour councils demolishing our estates will stop doing so of their own free will. That’s good enough for a religious cult; it’s not for a political party claiming to be socialist.

P.P.S. This report was sent to ASH today from someone who attended the screening on Friday night:

‘I can say it was an eye opening revelation for ‘the many’ estate residents who came from across the four corners of London in the hope of getting direct answers about stopping Labour councils estate demolitions from St Corbyn himself. Of ‘the (very!) ‘few’ questions that were ‘allowed’ to be asked , the response was Tory blaming, cause-whoring for votes, policy waffling and rhetoric – with absolutely no answers or affirmative action plan for what’s happening to estates right now!

‘Needless to say, the Q&A got cut short when the PR/Spin doctors realised the screening was not full of fawning fans.

‘Aysen Dennis, I salute you for your selfless, relentless and tireless campaigning against the social cleansing of Aylesbury and 196+ estates being mercilessly destroyed by Labour for private interests and banks.

‘As for Momentum, Unite the Union, Defend Council Housing, the Socialist Workers Party, Axe the Housing Act and any other social cleansing apologists, we have a monumental humanitarian housing crisis of the working class going on right now. So in 2018, will you kindly to get out of the way and stop fireblanketing, co-opting and publicly shouting down or singing that pathetic Jeremy Corbyn song over genuine grass-roots activists and housing campaigners who are rightly critical of the bearded one, the crooked Labour town halls and borough mayors’ direct attacks on London’s working-class estate communities. Otherwise they will be doomed alongside small independent businesses for demolition and displacement when the Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Savills Estate Agent-steered London Plan comes into effect.

‘It was good for estate communities to witness first hand what Labour really are: The Judas Party of The Working Class!’

P.P.P.S. These additional comments were sent to us over the weekend:

‘Jeremy Corbyn wrapped it up as soon as it became clear that the scales have fallen from Labour voters’ eyes.’

‘The Q&A was quite heated. I saw Aysen Dennis get pulled off-stage by a heavy. Several people did challenge Corbyn on the demolitions. I saw disappointment all around me at his responses. He was asked about a policy to protect leaseholders and admitted that Labour doesn’t have one.’

‘Hopefully someone will post a video online, but it was quite heated. Some people who were at the end of their tethers just heckled and shouted. Several members of the audience criticised Corbyn over failing to act against the Labour councils carrying out the demolitions and to condemn the councillors by name. One person tried to unveil a banner onstage and the security grabbed them. He was asked a yes/no question by the producer about halting demolitions and he gave a waffling answer that several people noted as not actually answering the question. Well, he is a politician, after all.’

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