The Peasants’ Revolt: Lessons from History

This article, published on the 27th anniversary of the attack by the Metropolitan Police Service on the Poll Tax demonstration in London on 31 March 1990, is dedicated to Ian Bone, class warrior and comrade. The illustrations of the Peasants’ Revolt are by Clifford Harper.

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When looking back on an historical event it’s useful to compare the social conditions in which it occurred with those of the present day – not, as our history lessons inevitably do, in order to show how much more advanced, just, equal, wealthier and democratic society is under capitalism, but to reveal just how contingent, unjust, exploitative, impoverished and elitist our present economic, political and legal structures are.

In England we are constantly told by foreigners stupefied by our entrenched class structure that it survives because we never had a social revolution – such as they had in North America or France or even Germany, let alone like those in Russia or China – and therefore retain the anachronism of a monarchy, even if under a parliamentary democracy. It’s slightly odd that so many people, and not only from abroad, are unaware that in 1640 England had the first revolution of any Modern nation, nearly 150 years before the French Revolution, that like it was a revolution of the middle classes, and which – following the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 – gave birth to our current system of constitutional monarchy. Long before even the English Revolution, however, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the first large-scale uprising of the English working classes, and therefore the most significant social event in England during the Middle Ages; and in this centenary of the Russian Revolution it’s the conditions from which that revolt arose, rather than those ten days in October 1917, that I’ve been looking at and comparing with the England of the present.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now the most unequal country in Europe, and one of the most unequal countries in the world, worse even than the United States of America. The wealthiest 1 per cent of our population of 65 million people own nearly 24 per cent of the UK’s total wealth: equivalent to that of the poorest 55 per cent, and more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest 20 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of our population owns 54 per cent of the national wealth, with the poorest 20 per cent owning just 0.8 per cent, and the poorest 40 per cent just 14.6 per cent of wealth – the lowest proportion of any Western country. Just 34 per cent of the population owns the UK’s £9 trillion of private wealth, with the remaining 66 per cent holding no positive financial assets. 21 per cent of the population, 13.4 million people, are living in relative poverty – that is, they earn less than 60 per cent of the median income; and 17 per cent, 4.5 million households, are living in fuel poverty – meaning that to heat their homes they have to fall below the poverty line. Over 1 million provisions of three days’ worth of emergency food were handed out at food banks last year. There has been a 71 per cent increase in hospital admissions for people suffering from malnutrition, with 391 people dying from it in 2015. Cases of scarlet fever have doubled in recent years, and we have the fifth highest infant mortality rate in Europe. Yet as home to 120 billionaires the UK has the most per capita of any country in the world, including the USA. The wealth of our richest 1000 people has doubled in the past decade to £547 billion, more than a third of the annual economic output of the entire UK, and we have the fifth largest economy in the world. It seems useful to ask, therefore, not how far we have come from the England of 1381, but how close we still are to a time that may seem unimaginably backward, corrupt and violent to us today, but to which we are not so much returning, as is often said, but seeking to emulate under the conditions of monopoly capitalism. If we don’t think the vast inequalities, social oppression and political violence of England’s Middle Ages could ever return to these isles, we haven’t been paying attention to history.

That’s hardly surprising, since history isn’t something that happened in the past, but something that’s written, or more accurately different texts competing to become the official version of the past. As George Orwell rightly wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s not by chance that so few English children have even heard of the Peasants’ Revolt, with history only being compulsory up to year 3 of secondary school. Nor that until fairly recently in our history what accounts there were of it served the ruling class of the past the better to ensure the continuation of their descendants’ rule in the future. That’s changed slightly over the past few decades, but the control of the ruling class over the present has made sure that few of the children of the ruled classes will ever read a history book or take an interest in the repressed history of their oppressed class. In an effort to take back this control of our future, I’ve been looking at the Peasants’ Revolt, its causes, their similarities to today, and what lessons from history we can learn about changing our present from what happened in the south-east of England in the summer of 1381.

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Entente Cordiale: An anal probe into London’s housing crisis

Anal Probe

London’s a cesspit. Wherever you stick your probe, it comes out stinking of corruption.

Last Tuesday, 21 February, over two weeks after a possession order was granted on the land (but not the property) at 18 Grosvenor Gardens, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians moved to new premises, their third in Belgravia in recent weeks.

Their new address is 19 Buckingham Gate, SW1E 6LB, a property that sits opposite Wellington Barracks, home of the Foot Guards battalions on service at Buckingham Palace. It’s a commercial property that has served as an office for the Communications Group, a PR consultancy. Their lease expires this June, but it seems they’ve got out early.

In June 2015 Westminster Council granted planning permission for the demolition of the properties at both 18 and 19 Buckingham Gate and their redevelopment as 14 residential flats, all with car-parking access in a proposed newly-dug basements car park. The redevelopment is being funded by GSP Real Estate, which their website describes as specialising in ‘entrepreneurial property investments with high growth potential’.

In considering the planning application, Westminster Council decided that 18 Buckingham Gate, a 1960s office building, makes a negative contribution to the conservation of the area, while no. 19, which was rebuilt in 1953 following war damage, is neutral at best because it was re-modelled in the 1980s.

Westminster Council also came to the convenient decision that affordable housing would not be appropriate on site, so accepted payment in lieu of £600,000, an increase on the original offer of £430,000, which GSP originally claimed was all they could afford. The Tory council acknowledged this sum was lower than would normally be required by policy, but bowed to the greater knowledge of the assessor, PNP Paribas, one of the largest banks in the world, and what they call its ‘rigorous independent viability assessment’.

To put this in context, the average price of a flat on Buckingham Gate is currently £1,787,012, meaning the Section 106 agreement, which requires 25 per cent of residential floor space to be provided as affordable housing, has generated the equivalent of about one third of a flat.

Despite this, Westminster Council concluded that since 5 of the 14 proposed new luxury apartments were for 3-bedroom units and 1 for a 4-bedroom unit, the plans met with Policy H5 of the Unitary Development Plan to provide more homes for families in the borough.

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Campaign for Beti: Equality Duties of the Guinness Partnership and the Human Rights of their Tenants

Betiel Mahari was a resident of the Loughborough Park Estate in Brixton who paid social rent on her flat. Despite living there for 10 years, Beti was kept on an assured shorthold tenancy by the housing association, who never gave her security of tenure. So when the Guinness Partnership demolished her home in 2015 and moved her into another of their properties in Kennington, they were able to change her tenancy from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’, and raise her rent from £109 per week to £265 per week for a two-bedroom flat – a 240 per cent increase.

As a result of this enforced eviction and relocation of her family, Beti lost her full-time employment as the manager of Brixton’s Art Nouveau restaurant. Although she subsequently found work as a waitress on a zero-hours contract, Beti is now reliant on benefits to pay her increased rent and support herself and her two children on a salary far less than she earned before. To make matters worse, while the Department of Work and Pensions worked out how much of her part-time salary she can keep while claiming benefits, they suspended all their payments to her for three months. Not only that, but because her employment hours change every week, her benefits have to be re-assessed every three months. As a result, Beti has fallen into arrears with her rent, and the Guinness Partnership is now trying to evict her from her home for the second time. Beti is on an agreed instalment plan for the rent arrears, but the Guinness Partnership wants to increase her payments still further. Her court hearing is on 7 March, 2017.

Last September Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, based on the report by the government inspector, Lesley Coffey, refused Southwark Labour Council’s compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the homes of leaseholders on the first development site of the Aylesbury Estate demolition. Some of that decision was based on the leaseholders not being offered enough compensation by the council to buy a new home in the same area, so that doesn’t apply to Beti as a tenant. However, two key reasons for his decision were based on residents’ rights, whether or not they own their home or not, and these rulings by the Secretary of State are applicable to Beti’s situation, and therefore her appeal against the eviction of her family from their home by the Guinness Partnership.

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Squat Belgravia: The Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians

First Occupation

On Wednesday, 25 January, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (a squat crew that go by the acronym of ANAL) occupied 102 Belgrave Place, SW1X 8BU, a Grade II listed building on Eaton Square, and invited London’s homeless to find a safe place to sleep under its expansive roof. The £15 million mansion, which faces onto Eaton Square, stands on the UK’s most expensive street, with homes costing on average £17 million. Owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Goncharenko, Chief Executive Officer of Gazprom Invest Yug – a subsidiary of Russia’s third largest gas and oil company – the Belgravia property is one of four the oligarch has purchased in London over the past three years, spending £41 million on a mansion on Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, £70 million on 50 St. James’s Street in Mayfair, and £120 million on Hanover Lodge in Regent’s Park – the highest amount ever paid for a residential property in the UK.

The Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians announced their intention to turn 102 Belgrave Place into a homeless shelter, and between 30 and 40 people were housed there during the occupation. The building’s numerous small rooms make it an ideal layout for a hostel, giving rough sleepers somewhere safe and warm to stay – something that can mean the difference between life and death during the winter months. The three large reception rooms were turned into a kitchen and dining room, community hall and workshop space. Another room was transformed into a film room, and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was one of the films listed for screening. The central location of the new hostel made it easy for people to donate food, clothes and bedding, and visitors were generous in donating all three. Given Westminster Tory Council’s stated practice of forcibly sending its homeless out of London, the squat was also a shelter from the Westminster Police.

The following Saturday the occupation, which had announced itself as an ‘anti-fascist’ squat, was attacked by a group of about 20 fascists who smashed three windows and tried to force entry into the building. An English Defence League march was taking place in Westminster that afternoon, and it’s likely that the attackers, who included the Nazi-saluting Ian MacTaggot, was a breakaway group. There were about 50 squatters and visitors in the building at the time, and once the children were taken upstairs away from the stones, the attackers were fought off with fire-extinguishers. The police, who had sat in squad cars outside the squat all day, conveniently drove off half an hour before the fascists arrived, and returned shortly afterwards. The Metropolitan Police Force still hasn’t come up with an explanation of how a gang of 20 masked-up fascists were able to inflict such damage in broad daylight to a building on the most expensive street in London surrounded by CCTV at a squat that had been reported around the world and was being watched by private security guards – and still walk away without being stopped.

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The Anarchist Present: Eaton Square

I know almost nothing of anarchist theory, but of what little I know there seems to be a problem with what happens afterwards. A little like Jane Eyre’s famous concluding line — ‘Reader, I married him’ — it’s the unwritten bit that follows that will determine whether the love affair was real or just infatuation. But whether the idea is to destroy the power of the state (and refuse to get married) or take power (and abolish marriage as an institution), I don’t understand how that is meant to be done or maintained against the power of the military-industrial complex backed by the wealth of international capitalism. Communism, by contrast, came up with a pretty clear image of the future once their fabled Revolution was brought about, even though so far things haven’t quite gone according to plan — quite the contrary. However, the hope and faith in the Revolution has induced a sort of idealism in communists, who tend to act as if it was always just around the corner, capitalism always in crisis and just about to fall — as it has been, it seems, practically since it reared its ugly head. I have always felt that the contradictions of capitalism are more often to be found in the hope and faith of those predicting its imminent demise than in the economic, political and ideological system that has colonised the entire world.

This hope and faith — terms more appropriate to messianic religious nutters than materialist revolutionaries — leads communists to act in ways that are purely formal approximations of political activity. The latest example was last week’s communist protest outside a Glasgow bar, apparently against Bacardi for being ‘an enemy of Cuba’. If you can’t see the ridiculousness of this you belong in Stalin’s politburo — or worse, on Tariq Ali’s picnic guest list. Quite apart from the Borg-like behaviour of its adherents towards those who don’t toe the Party Line, it’s because of such absurdities that communism has never managed to appeal to the British working class sufficiently to make it a political force in the UK, as it has been, at times, in Germany, Italy and France. As much as communism gains a certain authority from its international scope, and notwithstanding the importance of its critique of capitalism as a global system of exploitation and violence, the British working class, faced with homelessness, unemployment and poverty, and without an apparent alternative to the corruption and capitalism of the Labour Party, are not going to be lured by communists banging on about Palestine, Cuba and Venezuela and thrusting one hundred year-old texts by Lenin in their faces. The failure of communism to increase its followers — even now when there is such a need for a political alternative — is, if not proof, then a strong argument for the truth of this accusation, no matter how unpalatable it may be. The working class of Britain want to be spoken to about solutions to their own sufferings, which however much they pale besides those of the people of Palestine, Yemen or Syria, are theirs, getting worse, and to which no political movement in this country is presenting a solution.

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Harrods and the Social Cleansing of London

uvw-protest

There was a disproportionately large police presence last Saturday at the United Voices of the World demonstration at Harrods Department Store. The protest was called in support of 450 waiters and chefs demanding they receive 100 per cent of their tips from customers, rather than the 25 per cent they are currently receiving, which reduces the salary of each member of staff by up to £5,000 per year. To put this in context, this theft of up to 75 per cent of staff tips by management comes in a year when Harrods announced that their pre-tax profits for 2015-16 had increased by 19 percent to £168 million, sales had risen by 4 per cent to £1.4 billion, and the owners had just paid themselves a juicy £100.1 million dividend. Architects for Social Housing turned up in support of this protest, as did members of Class War, while the Left – whether in the form of other unions like Unite, the Corbyn support group Momentum, or the various Trotskyist factions such as the Socialist Workers Party – were conspicuously if unsurprisingly absent: the UVW being unaffiliated to the Labour Party and therefore beyond the bounds of its control. Despite this, the protest was well attended and conducted peacefully and in good humour, stopping the traffic several times with the giant blow-up banner, but letting people pass freely along the pavement, and we were generally well received by passers-by, with none of the well-heeled patrons taking excessive umbrage at having to enter the Harrod’s Sale by the side doors.

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Resist Guinness Evictions: Campaign for Beti

guinness-beti

Last night I met up with Beti, a former tenant of the Loughborough Park Estate in Brixton, which was demolished by the Guinness Partnership last year, resulting in the loss of 180 homes for social rent. Having been evicted from her Assured Shorthold Tenancy, which she had held for 10 years, Beti lost her business, a cafe in Brixton, and is now claiming housing benefit to pay the rent in her new place, where she lives with her two boys. Strange as it might seem, though, she was one of the lucky ones. Having been one of the key figures in the campaign of resistance to the demolition, and having fought Guinness housing association to the last, Beti was one of only 11 out of 100 Assured Shorthold Tenancies on the estate rehoused in Southwark, unlike most of her fellow tenants, who were moved to the outer boroughs of London. Beti’s new tenancy, however, is for ‘affordable rent’, meaning her rent has been raised from £109 per week to £265 per week for a two-bedroom flat. Even though the Guinness Partnership demolished her home and re-housed her in another Guinness estate, they have not given Beti a secure tenancy on a social rent in her new place.

You might wonder how the Guinness Partnership arrived at this weekly rate for an ‘affordable’ rent that can be up to 80 per cent of market rate. The answer is that it’s at the upper limit of what she can claim on housing benefit, and therefore the maximum that the Guinness Partnership, which still enjoys charity status and calls itself a social housing provider, can squeeze out of the state. If you’re wondering why councils are so eager to hand over their housing stock to housing associations like Guinness, Peabody, Notting Hill Trust and London & Quadrant, it’s because the housing benefit that residents will be forced to claim on the new, insecure tenancies for ‘affordable’ rent come from Central Government, not from the council. So if you want to know who the real benefit scroungers are, look no further than these housing associations. Between 2010 and 2015, housing associations in Britain made an extra £2.6 billion from tenants claiming housing benefit, which now make up 63 per cent of their 2.86 million households. But from 2012 to 2015, the number of housing association properties for  ‘affordable’ rent increased from 7,350 to 123,260, with 76,259 of these being converted from homes for social rent.

For the Guinness Partnership, this household of a single mother and her two children struggling to pay their ‘affordable’ rent is nothing more than a conduit through which public money passes into their private purse, and they will do anything to get their hands on it. They’ve already demolished Beti’s home, taken away her ability to support her family financially, increased her rent by 240 per cent, and driven her onto the benefits system. But that’s not all. Wanting to get away from the poverty, humiliation and bullying that is the result of claiming benefits in this country, she recently started working in a coffee shop. As anyone who has claimed benefits will know, this has immediately resulted in all her benefits being suspended as the ponderous wheels of the Department of Work and Pensions re-assesses her claim to work out what portion of her vast new earnings she can keep. While they do so, she has, of course – as the benefit system is designed to make happen – fallen into arrears on her rent. As a consequence of which, Beti has received notice from the Guinness Partnership that they will be evicting her and her children from their home in March.

This is what ASH means when we talk about the realities of estate demolition; and everyone who participates in this process, from the Labour Councils selling the land to the housing associations and property developers turning social housing into unaffordable housing and real estate investments, is responsible for what is happening to Beti and the hundreds of thousands like her across London. If you’re an architect sitting at your desk designing the new builds that facilitate this process, you are as guilty as the Chairman of the Guinness Partnership, and don’t think or pretend otherwise. None of this can happen without every link in the long chain of estate demolition doing its job. You may think you’re only one link in that chain, but as the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link; and at the moment every architectural practice in London is hand in hand, arm in arm, link in link, with the chain of social cleansing.

We’re not going to let this happen, if we can. Beti has decided to fight her eviction, and she needs all the help she can get, from housing campaigners, eviction resistance activists, human rights lawyers, and anyone else who is angry at what the Guinness Partnership is trying to do to her. At their invitation, Beti is going to be speaking at the next public meeting of the Save Northwold Estate campaign, where the Guinness Partnership are trying to do exactly the same thing they did on the Loughborough Park Estate. She’s going to warn the residents of Northwold what will happen to them if they believe the lies Guinness are telling them, and if they don’t fight for their estate and their community. In return, she asks that the Northwold Estate community support her campaign to resist her eviction from her home, and to have a secure tenancy in that home on social rent levels.

We’re hoping to put Beti in contact with a housing lawyer who may be able to help her in her legal claim that, given the Guinness Partnership demolished her former home and moved her to her current one, which they also own, she should have been transferred from one social rent tenancy to another, not driven into an unaffordable rent and the insecurity of housing benefit. But she needs the support of a wider campaign protesting against what the Guinness Partnership is doing to her. Since she is not alone in being treated like this, Beti hopes that this legal case may become a landmark decision that will force housing associations and councils alike to honour their responsibility to rehouse the residents whose homes they demolish on new developments with the same security of tenancy and the same rental rates. Anything else, as Beti’s current predicament demonstrates, is social cleansing designed to drive residents of social housing into an unregulated private rental market, temporary accommodation and homelessness.

If you’re wondering what the photograph above is of, it’s the security door on another flat in Beti’s block that has stood empty for 7 months. This in a borough with 22,000 households on the housing waiting list. But as Beti pointed out, since everyone else in her block is on social rent, she is effectively paying for her flat and the rent on this one, plus some taxi money for the Chairman of the Guinness Partnership, so why would they give this home to a homeless family on a secure tenancy? Better for them to wait till they have another evicted tenant from another estate they’ve demolished whom they can move in on an ‘affordable’ rent. If they have their way, they won’t have to wait long. According to their own Annual Review and Financial Statements 2015/16, last year the Guinness Partnership increased their income from ‘affordable’ rents from £14.6 million to £21.1 million through converting 559 homes for social rent to ‘affordable’ rent, and through the letting of new homes for ‘affordable’ rent on developments built on the site of demolished estates. As these figures show, whether through conversion or demolition, the destruction of social housing is big business.

guinness-financial-report2Please support Beti’s campaign by naming, shaming and challenging the Guinness Partnership on social and in print media as the social cleansers and home wreckers that they are; by giving her your active, professional (if applicable) and even financial support as she takes on the Guinness Partnership for her right to a home; and by signing her petition to the Guinness Partnership to call off her eviction on 7 March and give her a tenancy on a social rent.

Architects for Social Housing