What is it that happens when a group of people comes together, intent on fighting for more control over their lives? There is no one answer to that, but I have witnessed the birth of one particular new common project: London Renters Union. Building the union has sometimes felt a slow and painstaking process, but it has been a rewarding one that reveals the resources on which a new organisation draws. It has meant too, in a more practical vein, finding myself on the phone talking to an almost-stranger I met on the doorstep about their health difficulties and why they find it hard to join a renters union. Among the things you discover as a renters union takes shape is the daily struggles of other people. But that came later.
London Renters Union is starting up with the aim of transforming the housing system in London. In particular it wants to make life less terrible for those who have to rent privately in one of the most absurd and brutal housing markets in the world. The renters union is a way of saying ‘no’ to rents that damage our quality of life, to evictions at the drop of a hat, to abusive landlords, to slum conditions in one of the richest cities in the world. We are stating that people should have more control over their housing than this, and we are willing to fight for it.
The birth of the union
It began with the coming together of organisations. After decades of absurd and damaging economic and housing policies creating a ‘housing crisis’, many organisations had sprang up across London to fight for better housing. Some of the people involved in existing housing struggles began to see a need for a new organisation, one focused on the private rented sector, designed from scratch to be a mass-membership London-wide organisation with a stomach for a fight.
An initial steering group for the project was made up of representatives from existing organisations, all experienced activists. After some initial groundwork the group opened out to other people. It attracted first other experienced activists, then more and more people new to political organising. The need for a renters union in London is so clear that recruitment among the politically aware is almost effortless. But in order to expand, and in order to create a truly broad and diverse membership base, we had to go out and begin talking to those outside of our usual circles.
First though, we had a lot of planning to do. Starting a truly mass-based democratic membership organisation is, it turns out, tricky. One of the difficulties is that not many people in the UK have done such a thing recently. There isn’t a long history or extensive experience to draw upon. Instead we had to refer to, for example, the co-operative sector, in order to come up with a formal constitution. For the organising we wanted to do we had to draw on the few groups in London that have really tried organising from scratch and at scale. As for how to run large membership organisations, we had to learn about organising in other countries, primarily the US and Spain. Such a large project always has ancestry, and London Renters Union has international roots.
Then there were the meetings. You cannot set up a small organisation without meetings. You cannot set up a big organisation without a lot of meetings, or not if you want to be democratic. The way we organised together was important to us: we do not want to organise on behalf of other people, we want to organise together with each other. This requires, besides people’s time, space to meet in a city where nearly every inch is exploited to the max. We have drawn on nearly every radical organising space in London at some point in our formation. Resources put together when the renters union was not yet dreamt of were happy to accommodate us. The level of understanding extended to us by other organisations has been a joy to experience.
A union needs people
Not only space has been made available: advice and expertise has poured in from so many organisations that it would be difficult to list them all. When we have felt stretched to the limit people with experience in other organisations have joined us. We have recruited amazing paid staff with years of experience in other political projects. The impossibility of the London housing market draws people in, and so does the ambition of the renters union. It sometimes feels as though there is a collective wish among organisations and individuals to create a new grassroots force against the London housing market. It needn’t necessarily be a force called the London Renters Union, but many people see in us a chance to create something big and powerful in opposition to the rule of landlords and investors.
Having built the framework of an organisation, we went out and began meeting individuals on the doorstep and on the street, starting in the borough of Newham. We confronted people with a request to join an organisation of mutual aid, different even to the unions they might join at work, more democratic, more led by the members. The novelty of the request often surprises people, but there is also widespread agreement that the situation of private renters in London should be improved.
One of the big factors that determines whether or not people join the union is whether they believe that action they can take is able to improve the situation. Part of the renters union’s task, it turns out, is to create a collective self-belief, to challenge the depression and lassitude into which many people have fallen, beaten down by the market and the authorities. It is heartening to watch people move from conviction that nothing can change to conviction that they can make change. Hope is one of the most beautiful things the union can offer, but it also sets up a strong expectation – as does asking for membership fees. It feels like there is no choice now, having drawn so many people into a commitment and a promise. We have to make it work.
The union is relationships
What does it mean to make the union work? We are just at the beginning and will launch a London-wide membership drive this summer, so this is still an open question. Of course we want to make renting in London less awful, we want to see changes in law, changes in culture, changes in political attitudes, we want to question even the notion of renting. But it has become clear that this starts somewhere more basic: with the way people relate to each other. As the union has grown I have met people I do not normally meet, I have started to develop relationships of solidarity with those beyond my circles of friends. This can be difficult and demanding. Where are the boundaries when a tenant you are organising with calls you up on a holiday to ask you to solve a problem in which you have no expertise? I won’t say I always feel relaxed about these new relationships, but I’m happy to be exploring them; it is part of the work we want to do against the atomising housing market.
To build a union then is to draw on all the resources that other people and organisations offer up, but it is also to build new bonds, to replace relationships of commerce or convention with relationships that bind us together in order to increase our own power. The housing system is the obvious battleground, but the other battle is against alienation and resignation in a city so difficult and lonely for so many. We all live in London; in order to take control of the housing system we are pooling our knowledge and our resources and learning to live in London together.