A red dawn rises over the river Clyde.
The hurt, frustration and anger provoked by the benefit cut known as the ‘bedroom tax‘ is causing rumblings in Glasgow’s underbelly which could unleash the kind of wave of civil unrest that has defined the city’s politics over the last century in the faces of this generation’s most hated oppressors: the coalition.
But what will the new day bring?
Will the campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’ be a glorious last stand for the forces of democracy against the scourge of tyranny? Or simply a flock of well-intentioned but shepherd-less sheep throwing themselves into the midst of British politics’ wolverines?
Both these scenarios are distinctly plausible depending on how this protest movement organises itself.
That such a movement exists is logical in Glasgow, a city in which a reported 90,000 people receive housing benefit, many of whom live in houses with unoccupied bedrooms. The lack of single-bed social housing means that few will be able to downsize and avoid the 14%-25% penalty for ‘under-occupancy’. The added fact that 60-70% of those penalised are disabled has stoked the outrage of the working class and the political left to the point of combustion.
It is therefore surprising that, as a socially conscious and politically minded journalism student covering the Glasgow beat, I only heard about the anti-bedroom tax movement when an interviewee for a different story pointed out one of its weaknesses.
Professor David Archibald of Glasgow University was comparing the days of the rent riots, ‘Red Clydeside’ and the poll tax to the present:
“What’s lacking these days is any kind of leadership: the organisational structure of these movements is in a state of flux.
“At the moment the problem is confidence – people aren’t convinced that if they fight they will win.”
His case-in-point to illustrate this lack of confidence and structure was the ‘bedroom tax’, though he attributed the movement’s lack of traction thus far to factors beyond its control:
“There have been a number of local community meetings to discuss the ‘bedroom tax’ but it’s something you don’t see very much of in the news. Even the likes of Channel 4 News tend not to focus on what’s happening in working class communities.”
But these problems may be one and the same. Looking at popular movements such as Hacked Off, confidence and strong leadership raised their media profile to the point where they became a massive influence on public opinion and on the Leveson Enquiry into press standards.
While that campaign united people with very specific opinions on a single issue, those looking to mobilise the Glaswegian community against the ‘bedroom tax’ face a very different challenge.
Some preliminary research into Glasgow’s ‘bedroom tax’ campaign reveals the remonstrations of countless scattered, diffuse factions, all with a near-unique reason for opposing the cut.
Scotland’s two biggest political parties, Labour and the SNP, have both declared their disapproval of the ‘bedroom tax’ but have been reluctant to condone any strike action, demonstrations or legal challenges to the rules either in Holyrood or the City Chambers.
There have been calls for the Glasgow City Council to follow the example of Renfrewshire Council which has made arrears due to the ‘bedroom tax’ a “non-evictable debt”. However this would be impossible in Glasgow, where social housing is controlled by private housing associations independent of the council. This makes it impossible for the city council to calculate the losses such an amnesty would incur.
Much of the exploration into potential means of avoiding evictions due to the cut has been done by the charitable Govan Law Centre which, as well as advising those directly affected, has petitioned the Scottish Government to change the Housing (Scotland) Act to make ‘bedroom tax’-related evictions illegal in Scotland.
Other charities, too, have thrown their weight behind research into the potential legal and financial pitfalls inherent in such sweeping cuts. Shelter Scotland presented the Scottish Government with a three-point plan to protect tenants from homelessness and social landlords from bankruptcy.
Disability rights charities have also signalled their intent to campaign against the cut as a form of discrimination against disabled people, with both Black Triangle and Glasgow Disability Alliance becoming notable voices.
Trade Unions have stood against the tax as well, with the Bakers’ Union surprisingly leading the way in balloting for a 24-hour general strike, a move which has since been followed by the PCS and the Glasgow Trades Council. This is not surprising as many trade unionists are also affiliated with campaign groups such as the Scottish Anti-Cuts Coalition and Fight Racism Fight Imperialism.
These groups also have close links with left-wing political parties, notably the Socialist Party Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party.
This is where the protest movement hits a potential snag. Inter-organisational relations within the left of Scottish politics bear a strong resemblance to those between the Judean People’s Front and The People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with a lack of leadership and consensus hampering even the most honourable of campaigns.
One person who knows more than most about the dangers of these internal politics is Rosie Kane, the former Scottish Socialist Party MSP who watched her party, in her own words, “tear itself apart” following internal splits which added to those between the SSP and other leftist parties in Scotland:
“I find it hard to be in those rooms anymore; there are people that I can’t bear to be near; I can’t stand their behaviour; I can’t stand the way they organise themselves,” said Kane, still a community activist as well as a stage actress, but who has distanced herself from party politics in recent years:
“I find it hard to be in the same room as certain political animals even when the issue is really important – though I’ll still be at the demo’s and in the community.
“Organised politics is very important and the left in particular needs to organise itself but some of the egos need to shut up and sit down.
“Young people just now are very active. Young people will be hit by the bedroom tax, so I think it would be a shame if they get involved for all the right reasons and then the tub-thumping politics turns them off.
“But it would be even worse if they just follow the leader regardless just because they’re a good speaker.
“I’m very jaded at the moment so the only way I would know how to organise would be the way I used to do it which is in the community…and then other things like sitting here being interviewed by you.”
The last point is an important one. Kane continually criticises the suave, suited spectre of professional politics as putting selfish, personal agendas before the issues but even the most frequent subject of her criticism – her former party leader, Tommy Sheridan – was, if nothing else, a great PR man guaranteed to raise an issue’s profile in the media.
Sure enough, as recently as Monday March 4th he resurfaced in the Daily Record vowing to fight against the ‘bedroom tax’ on the front lines, just as he did with the poll tax.
Having served a year in prison for perjury and, perhaps worse for a socialist, spent three weeks in the Big Brother house, Sheridan’s star, for so many years in the ascendant, has now imploded into a black hole which, given his reputation in much of the British press, threatens to suck the integrity from anything which dares linger in its presence too long.
However, he remains close to Mike Dailly, the equally media savvy lawyer behind Govan Law Centre’s petition to the Scottish Parliament and Sheridan’s return to the centre of attention may be seen as recognition that the anti-‘bedroom tax’ campaign needs to raise its public profile through any sympathetic celebrity catalyst available.
However, the same issue of the Daily Record also features an arguably far more important figure in Glasgow’s resistance. Alan Wylie, an activist from Paisley who self-describes as “not a socialist, not a capitalist, just a normal guy who knows the difference between right and wrong.”
Wylie has organised many of the ground-level meetings which have put activists such as himself in touch with those worst affected by the cut.
The problem with these meetings is that word of mouth can only mobilise people in droves if they are attended by natural orators in the mould of Sheridan and George Galloway. Speeches read nervously from pieces of paper do not bring governments to their knees, however valid the content.
However, Wylie was also among the first to give this campaign an online presence, setting up a Facebook group to organise the Glasgow edition of the nationwide demonstrations taking place at the end of this month.
The Record article in which he features also demonstrates a recognition of the important role a largely sympathetic liberal media can play.
The key challenge for the campaign now will be keeping the issue of the ‘bedroom tax’ the focus of a persistently iconoclastic media’s attention.
Follow Gregor Cubie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GregorCubie