The bedroom tax is sick. There is no better word I can think of to express my feelings on it. It is the sort of policy that caused Aneurin Bevan to famously and belligerently declare that the Conservative Party were ‘lower than vermin.’ It is sick because it is deliberately yet thoughtlessly creates poverty, social exclusion and psychological torment. Because the logic of the tax is based on the denigration of the poorest and most vulnerable in society and the denial of the very essence of their humanity. Because for all the chaos and havoc it will wreak on the 660,000 households and families attacked by it, it will not even ameliorate the problems its advocates claim it is intended to- the state of public finances and social housing are in fact likely to be worsened.
It is the reaping of the whirlwind from Right to Buy, perhaps the most chronic yet celebrated disaster in the history of British housing policy. When Thatcher’s government heralded a new ‘property-owning democracy’ where the ‘aspirational working-class’ would be free to own their own homes, what was in fact ushered in was very different. Councils were forced to sell their housing stock at well below market value, tearing apart communities, creating an age of gentrification and pricing out the poor. Vulture landlords and even organised crime syndicates snapped up houses to sell off or rent at extortionate prices. As waiting lists for social housing soared, councils either turned people away or were forced to spend huge amounts of money housing them in the private sector. The response of the Conservatives is best exemplified by Peter Lilley’s infamous 1992 ‘little list’ speech, where he demonised those on the waiting lists to thunderous applause from party conference. And yet more recently, a modern Labour Party hack called Right to Buy ‘a human right.’ If anything, it is in fact a roof over one’s head should be enshrined in the law.
So in addition to paying for a national deficit created by bailing out disaster capitalism, the state has to pay for the mess made of social housing by its predecessors, and in doing so turns to its usual target- the poor. A housing benefit reduction of an average fourteen pounds per week may not seem much, but to the hundreds of thousands on tiny wages or the pittance that passes for a welfare system, reliant on food banks, unemployed in a hostile labour market, and in a context of soaring child poverty, it can become a matter of survival. The policy denies that a twelve-year old autistic child should have a room of his own. It charges people for tiny and uninhabitable box rooms. A personal example; my mother lives in a two-bedroom property in London. She receives £71 weekly in Jobseeker’s Allowance and is in the process of becoming self-employed, which falls to well below £50 after bedroom tax, council tax and NI contributions. This is before one has even considered energy bills. Not to mention food and the considerable expenditure involved in finding employment (clothes, the internet, London public transport costs, et al.) The bedroom tax is on an ‘under-occupied room’ that is mine, which the University assume I return to in the holidays. Student Finance England – a public body – are only permitted to assess me for maintenance loans and grants based on household income, a household which the implementation schema of the bedroom tax denies I am a part of.
Generous though Oxford’s bursary settlement is (and the situation would be far worse for students in similar positions at other universities, in light of the government’s onslaught of cuts and privatisation in higher education) I am dependent on the whims and messy waters of the job and internship market for income in the summer, and as a student may not claim benefits. The outcome is nonsensical and crippling- and my situation is far from the worst.
Chancellor and axeman-in-chief George Osborne, on the other hand, says that the bedroom tax/housing benefit reduction is ‘not a big deal.’ The casual intransigence, the out-of-touch weasel words from a multi-millionaire heir to a baronetcy is as laughable as it is terrifying. Lord Freud, the atavistic author of the tax, inhabits a multi-bedroomed mansion. Worse is Iain Duncan Smith’s offhand claim that he would be perfectly happy to live on £53 per week. If that is the case, I challenge him to put his considerable agglomerations of money where his mouth is and do so, as the slightest small recompense for the lives he is wrecking. Meanwhile the government’s rhetoric quietly fans the spittle-flecked bigotry of the Mail, the Express, and all those who would have us believe that hardworking individuals and families in an age of austerity and unemployment are work-shy scroungers (despite the fact that we pay into the national insurance scheme for protection.) The level of debate is Edwardian in the extreme, from the Right’s decontextualised lionisation of ‘self-help’ to an echo of the 1903 Rowntree Report in the release of another damning Rowntree report on poverty which should induce nothing but shame on a national level. Plus ca change.
As with healthcare reform (read marketisation), the Government are stolid in their tenacious refusal to listen to the experts. The National Housing Federation, representing 1200 housing associations, have decried the bedroom tax. It comes amid the removal of £2.3bn from family finances through the Welfare Reform Act (a horrific April Fool if there ever was one) at a time when people need it most. At the same time, the public body of homelessness advisers will be scrapped, as Crisis and other charities warn of a huge rise in homelessness. Yet it does not take an expert to see even the strategic failings. Forced property downsizing can only increase both state and individual expenditure by driving tenants into the more expensive private sector. It segues into the ghettoisation and mandatory migration caused by the housing benefit cap. Not only does compulsory relocation tear up people’s livelihoods and lifestyles, it also places ever more strain on poorer areas already wracked with unemployment and social exclusion. A few hundred displaced Londoners turning up in Doncaster by order of a local authority does no-one any good – except perhaps corrupt councilors- my old Leader of the Council received a £2400/week salary in addition to claiming first-class flights to the United States, an £800 meal and a five-star hotel on expenses, yet denied a disabled woman vital overnight care. Whichever way you look at it, the numbers refuse to square outside the isolated minds of Whitehall bureaucrats. There are simply not enough single-bedroom properties to go around- Grant Shapps seems determined to deny the statistics produced by local authorities and housing associations- and careless upheaval will cost money and lives. The arguments for the bedroom tax simply fall on their own terms.
The bedroom tax is a tax on poverty, a brutal and cynical attack that extends and deepens the Coalition’s agenda of making the working and unemployed poor pay for an economic crisis not of their making. Abstract historical comparisons can be wearing, but it should turn into something of a Poll Tax moment for this government. Mass non-payment campaigns and legal challenges need to abound. If evictions happen, a tenants’ movement should defend the homes of those threatened and protest every court hearing. Civil liberties are meaningless in the absence of social and economic rights- the only economic right we have is that of private property. Fighting the bedroom tax requires not just a political, but a legal and constitutional system built on creeping and permanent class war. It is a tax that exemplifies the greedy and self-defeating ideological currency of neoliberalism, the insistence on repeating the same set of policies and expecting different results. Plan A has failed, the economy remains in ruins, and the only solution we are offered is more cuts, more austerity, and the slow and gradual march of a tyranny of fear, insecurity, casualisation and exclusion. In the face of what is at stake, mass resistance remains the only answer.