Last week, Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Local Government Secretary, made an attack on the imposition of the Bedroom Tax in which he said ‘It’s hard to imagine that Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors would want to stand silently by as hundreds of thousands of their own constituents, two thirds of them disabled, are hit by the bedroom tax imposed by their leaders in Westminster. It’s time for them to speak out and join Labour’s opposition to this tax on the most vulnerable – at a time when millionaires are getting a whopping tax cut. They can stand up for the people they represent by standing up to David Cameron. The public will judge politicians who choose to remain silent in the face of this injustice.’
One could carp and point out that it is, in fact, very easy to imagine Tory councillors and their Lib Dem bag carriers standing by while thousands of their constituents are hit by the tax and face the choice between homelessness and starvation. However, Benn’s statement is welcome, as is Labour’s decision to get Labour Groups on councils across Britain to table motions opposing the tax.
But of course, it’s obvious Labour controlled councils need to do more than pass resolutions opposing the bedroom tax, the benefits cap and the imposition of council tax on hundreds of thousands of poor people. They have to decide – or be persuaded to decide – that they will not act as local agents of the Government by launching these attacks on it’s behalf. The first tentative signs of some practical opposition to the tax have already started to show. All nine SNP controlled local councils in Scotland have already pledged not to evict people driven into arrears by the change, as has Green led Brighton and Hove. However, the Labour/SNP coalition that runs Edinburgh Council has just made the same commitment. Bristol’s mayor has said council tenants will not be evicted for building up bedroom tax based arrears until “a sustainable way forward” is found and the Deputy Leader of Islington Council, speaking at a public meeting organised by the local anti cuts group and Unite Community a few days ago, indicated that the council would not be evicting tenants as it would cost more than the relevant arrears. Nottingham Council has announced that it is reclassifying all its high rise flats as one bedroom, including those with two bedrooms, and it is reclassifying all bedrooms under 50 sq ft as studies.
Everyone should now be putting pressure on their councillors, particularly if they are part of local Labour administrations, to take a public stand against bedroom tax evictions. The weakest link in the Tories’ chain of command are the relatively small numbers of councillors that make up Labour administrations, in the case of my borough just thirty people. We must attack this weakest link by constant lobbying at the regular local surgeries all councillors hold, not just one person turning up to one surgery, but several people attending every surgery every time one is held. Labour councillors must be made to realise that they will be constantly held to account for the role they play, personally and as part of their group, in deciding whether or not people will lose their homes and, in the case of Londoners, face deportation to towns and cities in the Midlands and the North, through no fault of their own.
Labour councillors must be made aware that this is a government edict that they can legally ignore and that there are good financial reasons for them to do so. Many will already be very uncomfortable with the idea of doing the Tories’ dirty work for them on this issue and we must make it clear that choosing to find their backbones on this issue will be a much easier option than being seen to be bailiffs for the Tories.
The Tories may have over-reached themselves with this spiteful and pointless attack on the poor – this is a battle that we can win.