It starts snowing as we walk towards the Methodist church on Banks street in Garston for Wednesday’s anti-bedroom tax meeting. It’s as cold as a morgue out here. Everyone remarks on the glacial air. It underscores the fact that homelessness – the endgame of a vile “initiative” like the bedroom tax – would be beyond appalling. I have to walk around the block to use time up while we’re waiting to go in. The woman who usually opens the church for the meetings is a bit late this evening and the thought of an extra ten minutes out in the freezing air makes me want to sit in the bus-stop and bawl.
Anyway. There are people I know here now. This is the second bedroom tax meeting to be held in Garston and quite a few people have returned this week and so there is a friendliness and familiarity to things. This is, I suspect, what organisation looks like. I have no idea where it will go, but I can see why Labour worthies are worried that it’ll get there without them. People are making their own connections. People have been making their own connections for a while.
I talk again with John,* the 56-year-old man I met here last Wednesday. He’s unemployed and liable for two bedrooms if the bedroom tax goes through: he’s living in the three-bedroom house that he’s lived in all of his life. He says there are only two bedrooms, really: the smallest one is so small that he and his mother (who died some years ago) never used it for anything but storage. If he has to pay for the two “extra” ones, he’ll have to find about £40 a fortnight out of a jobseekers’ allowance of around £130.
He’s in an impossible situation – and a ridiculous one, as it turns out. He tells me that his housing association has asked him if he’d consider moving into a two-bedroom property from his three-bedroom one, because it doesn’t have any one-bedroom flats available. The thing is: “they said you can move into a two-bedroom flat, but you’d still have to pay the bedroom tax (for the extra bedroom) on that. So, that’s moving and paying for the privilege of moving. I said – well what’s the good of that?”
What good indeed. If, as John says, you factor in the cost of moving (and he doubts very much that he could pay it) to a two-bedroom place and then a one-bedroom home if one ever became available, surely he and the state would be better off if he just stayed where he was. But this is not about finance. It was never about finance. It is – as many people say this evening – about maliciousness and causing terrible instability and pushing people who claim any sort of benefit out of homes into the cold.
That’s why, John says, “we’ve got to show them if you know what I mean. Liverpool people will take a lot, but when they get pushed too much – it’ll be like, that’s enough. If it does get bad, you’ll get people who have never done it before who are going to rob. They’ll be saying: I’ve got a family to feed, I’ve got a wife to feed – do you pay your bills or starve… once October (and Universal Credit) comes in, it’s going to go Boom, you know.”
Margaret*, who is from Speke, feels very much as though she’s being pushed too far. She has two-bedroom flat which she was moved into about 13 years ago so that she could care for her 87-year-old mother who lives nearby. “I’ve saved the state thousands of pounds in carers’ fees (by providing that care service for her mother)” she says through gritted teeth. “That’s how I’m served for doing that.”
She’ll have to pay for the extra bedroom out of her small benefit. “They don’t care where you find it. They don’t care if you’re on the bones of your arse.” Her housing association rang several weeks ago “to tell me I was one of the chosen to pay and I said Yes, I know. [The woman on the phone] said “the government has asked us to ask all of our tenants if they would be interested in taking a lodger.”” Margaret thinks she will be affected by cuts to council tax benefit. She’s waiting to find out how much she’ll be expected to pay. “This is malicious. [They think] we’re no good. We’re not bringing a profit to anyone, so what use are we? This is just the thin end of the wedge.”
Her friend, Eileen*, agrees. She also has one spare bedroom that she’ll be asked to pay for. Her son, meanwhile, has two young children – a boy and a girl – who’ll be expected to share a room, because they’re both under ten.
In the meeting itself, I’m struck again by the fact that there are no councillors or MPs present. This is the fourth meeting I’ve attended in ten days and I’ve not seen an elected representative at one. It’s hard not to conclude that people are on their own with this – that if they’re really going to overturn this policy and protect social housing for good, they’re going to have to do it themselves. March 16 may be a great day, but my concern is that it will prove mainly to be a great day for Labour. There’s a lot of very good organisation taking place as we speak. It’s been taking place for some time. Why wait and wait and wait to actively support it? (Rhetorical question, that).
I do note that nobody asks where councillors are this evening (they did ask that question last week). They talk more about the sort of action they can take themselves.
“You can do lots of things,” says one of the women who is from the Dingle organising group. “You can open your gob and you can talk. They’ve suppressed people’s voices and this has been going on and we haven’t even been aware of it. They cut all our social places and they’ve trapped you in your homes. So people are scared and are thinking we’ve got to accept it, because we’re on our own. They’ve done the media. They’ve done the radio. It’s seeping out a little bit, but not enough. They’ve done it in such a way that people are all trapped now in their house.”
One of the older men who was here last week says “this not the first time in Liverpool [where we’ve had this kind of attack]. We’ve had years of it – when we had proper unions and docks. The young people have a different attitude now. They’re not political like in the 50s and 60s. The kids come at it from a different angle. They’ll just do it. If you got kids, you know what I mean.”
“We can bring it together as one community,” the woman from the Dingle group says. “Everyone has a talent. There’s a person who is good at communicating – so you send that person out. There’s a person that’s good at words – so you put that person out there. You’ve got to do this for your kids, right. My son was very negative, but he’s started to ask what is going on. I’ve got his interest now and that is massive. They need us to take the lead and to show them how this is done.”