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Labour’s Radical Renting History

For much of Labour's history the party was vocally anti-landlord, with even its right-wing opposed to the private rented sector – its recent conversion to a softer line is decidedly 'un-Labour.'

‘Private landlordism is not an appropriate form of home-ownership in an advanced society,’ wrote a prominent Labour MP in the early 1960s. This strident statement came not from the usual left-wing suspect Tony Benn, but rather the sage of the revisionist right, Tony Crosland, in his 1962 book The Conservative Enemy.

Crosland went on: ‘The landlord often looks on house-property simply as an investment to give [them] a perpetual return with the minimum of expenditure… worse still, [they] wield a degree of personal power over [their] tenants which can be offensive and intolerable.’ Far from being extreme, his views were in fact Labour policy throughout much of the post-1945 period. The party sought to effectively abolish the private landlord through ‘municipalisation’ – local authority takeover – of rented housing. 

In our pandemic present, this thinking has returned in ‘Cancel the Rent’ campaigns supported by Labour activists, which seek to cancel rent arrears or even rent altogether for the duration of the crisis. It is curious, then, that the Labour Party Shadow Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire described the philosophy of Cancel the Rent as ‘surprisingly un-Labour.’

Debbonaire made her comments as part of a talk hosted by the Young Fabians in May, pointing instead to Labour’s policy to allow renters to accrue interest for up to two years before paying back their landlords as the more reasoned option. In the same discussion, Debbonaire went on to suggest that some private landlords were on a ‘mediocre income’ topped up ‘by renting out their mum’s house’, their situation being so precarious that even a temporary rent stoppage (if unfunded) would result in the same landlords ‘going bust’ and homeless tenants.

The current Labour policy was arrived at after discussion with the main landlords’ body, the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) – but without the involvement of tenants’ organisations. It is almost as if Labour’s radical housing past has slipped into the mists of time, to the point that the views of the landlord trump those of the tenant. How, then, was landlord abolition once Labour policy? And why has this history been forgotten?

Post-War Consensus

Our collective amnesia may be due to the fact that the private rented sector has until recent times been a marginal section of the housing market. Private rented housing now comprises around 20% of British households, having gradually recovered after collapsing to 9% of the market in 1991.

The last period in which private renting was as prominent as part of the market as it is today was in the post-war era, having stood at 58% just before the Second World War before steadily declining in the following decades. While we tend to look to the Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915 as a historical example of housing radicalism, in more recent times the approach of those within Labour towards private landlords was far from conciliatory.

By 1945, the majority of private rented housing in Britain was subject to rent control. Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, rent control had been imposed on most unfurnished rental properties, with around ten million dwellings covered by this legislation. Wartime damage, a lack of maintenance, as well as the fact that many of the rented terraces or tenements in question were thought to be slums, meant that taking squalid property from their owners seemed to many within Labour the simplest route to improving the lives of the inhabitants.

Jim Simmons, a Birmingham Labour councillor and later an MP, argued in a 1945 council debate that slum landlords should receive no compensation whatsoever should their properties be compulsorily purchased, likening his stance to the fact that council health inspectors did not compensate butchers for ‘diseased meat.’ Yet the focus of the Attlee government was on public house building and reconstructing blitzed cities, with the private rented sector accordingly receiving relatively limited attention between 1945 and 1951.                 

The 1950s saw a far greater focus on private renting. Tory plans to relax rent controls in return for landlords carrying out minor repairs added a certain impetus to this activity. Labour committed in the 1953 policy statement Challenge to Britain to the policy that local authorities should ‘gradually’ take over rent-controlled homes, as it was ‘idle’ to expect landlords to improve their property.

One such local authority to municipalise was Birmingham City Council, taking over 30,000 slum houses in 1953. This collective disdain for landlords came to fruition at the 1954 party conference, at which Nye Bevan backed a successful Constituency Labour Party (CLP) motion committing the party to municipalisation, asserting in the conference debate that ‘[the] private ownership of rental property… results in a progressive deterioration of an invaluable part of the social equipment.’

Though the new policy did not help to convince the electorate at the 1955 general election, where municipalisation was mentioned by the Tories it was as an unpleasant alternative to rent control, in which tenants would see their new public landlord increase rents. 

With little sense of irony, the Tories moved to decontrol private rents after the election, with their thinking motivated by an ideological ambition to recreate a free market in housing, which they believed would solve the repairs issue. The outcome of their deliberations was the 1957 Rent Act, which allowed a cheap rental property to be removed from the rent control system if the sitting tenant changed – creating an obvious incentive for the landlord to kick out the existing tenant.

Labour had warned of this ahead of the Rent Act in their 1956 pamphlet Homes For The Future, suggesting that ‘[landlords] are not philanthropists… but business men. They are not going to bother to improve or maintain their properties unless they can see some return on their investment.’ Investigating the decontrol of rents in Reading in 1957, with some tenants facing sharp increases of 50 per cent or more, the Tribune correspondent Mervyn Jones remarked that the local landlords were neither the caricatures of little old ladies nor big corporations but simply people ‘in business as landlords.’

It wasn’t quite renting out their mum’s house but it wasn’t all that far from it either. In this instance, however, the party response was plainly on the side of the tenant. Labour reaffirmed their commitment to rapid municipalisation should they win the next general election, declaring in a 1958 policy pamphlet that ‘the private landlord who owns property in order to make money must be replaced by a public landlord treating housing as a social service.’

The thorny issue of compensation was treated more judiciously than Jim Simmons had in 1945, with the left-wing NEC member and MP Ian Mikardo proposing weekly annuities or even council stocks to ex-landlords, making, as he put it, ‘nonsense of the talk our having to find millions of pounds in compensation.’

Class Politics

Then, as now, private landlords organised against the possibility that Labour might actually reform or even abolish them.

The Association of Land and Property Owners (ALPO) and National Federation of Property Owners (NFPO) formed in 1958 the Rented Homes Campaign to oppose municipalisation, with the campaign board including Conservative peer Lord Brocket, the construction magnate Sir Richard Costain (whose company owned Dolphin Square in London), and the Conservative MP Albert Braithwaite.

They were joined by a retired Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, who was ‘leant’ a mailing list by his former Civil Service colleagues, and the rather less conscientious great-grandson of Charles Dickens, Harry Dickens, for whom the landlord’s ‘stake in British land’ trumped the right of the tenant of protection from eviction. The Rented Homes campaign, which had significant involvement from Conservative HQ, betrays the very real fears of private landlords and Conservatives alike in the late 1950s that tenant anger would result in defeat at the next general election.

As it happened, Labour went on to lose the 1959 general election, due in part to voter suspicions of Gaitskell’s pledge not to raise taxes. Though it was evident that private tenants were not mobilising to give Labour an electoral advantage, it was equally the case that municipalisation was not a vote loser in and of itself.

A 1969 study by the political scientist M.J. Barnett indicated that Labour’s municipalisation commitment was, in the eyes of the electorate, little more than a ‘traditional statement.’ All-out municipalisation nevertheless began to be replaced as Labour policy in the early 1960s by a more limited aim of reforming the rent control system – though, as Crosland’s comments suggest, the basic hostility to private landlords remained constant.    

During the summer of 1963, the political scandal referred to as the ‘Profumo Affair’ drew in the slum landlord Peter Rachman, who had dealings with some of the figures in the case. Though Rachman had in fact died in November 1962 and had owned at most 150 run-down properties in West London, his habit of using intimidation to force a change in tenancy – and thereby decontrol – came in for press scrutiny.

Rachman had been in the business of buying up rent-controlled houses in slum clearance areas such as Notting Hill, forcing the sitting tenants to quit through colourful means and then renting out the newly subdivided, decontrolled units at a profit. Ironically, as Caryl Phillips commented in 2019, Rachman could almost be regarded more favourably today as he rented to black immigrants (if at a considerable profit), who were otherwise discriminated against in housing.

Yet ‘Rachmanism’ provided a conduit for Labour to push the effects of the 1957 decontrol onto the public agenda: here was a private landlord of the exact character that had prompted the party calls for landlord abolition in the 1950s.  The (relatively) new Labour leader Harold Wilson called for a debate on the issue in July 1963, which led to the inquiry of the Milner Holland Committee into rented housing in London.

When the inquiry reported in 1965, landlord abuses were found to be considerably more widespread than Rachman alone. Given that the tactics to force out sitting tenants included leaving snakes in bedrooms, throwing human excrement into passageways and in at least one instance, removing the roof of a property, the private landlord became a figure of fun.

In a 1965 Sun cartoon, one woman complains to another ‘I’m fed up with our landlord – he hasn’t sent us a dead rat in weeks and what am I to feed the snakes on?’       

With the private landlord now a pantomime villain, Labour made good use of Rachmanism at the 1964 general election, pledging to crack down on bad landlords. However, rather than ‘abolishing’ private landlords altogether when in government, the party instead opted for a new system of regulation in the 1965 Rent Act.

Security of tenure was introduced for all tenants of unfurnished accommodation – whether controlled or not – but rent increases could occur, assessed by independent rent officers charged with setting ‘fair rents.’ Incredibly, given the Conservative assault on controlled rents, security of tenure would essentially remain intact (even being extended to furnished accommodation in 1974) until the near-complete deregulation of private renting by the Thatcher government in the 1988 Housing Act.

With enormous public house-building schemes and a continuous rise in owner-occupation throughout this period, the private landlord faced abolition in effect if not in design, leading to the rapid collapse of the private rented sector to the lowly 9% market share in 1991 detailed at the beginning of this piece.

There was an element of truth to Harry Dicken’s 1958 claim that ‘whatever [Labour] might say, they don’t like private property.’ The judgement of this penurious Dickens could still stand for the attitude of Labour members today towards being in business as a landlord.

After a recent era of buy-to-let landlords, steep rent rises and under-employment – not to mention the return of the slum landlord exploiting those on the margins of society – renting out mum’s house (plus a dozen others) in an era in which we lack security of tenure means that we wouldn’t expect to find a sympathetic hearing for private landlords within the Labour Party (or even society at large).

The involvement of Labour activists in tenants’ unions such as ACORN, Living Rent and the London Renters Union, and the launch of campaigns such as Labour Tenants United suggests the exact opposite. It is true that much of the current situation is the legacy of New Labour, who maintained the de-regulated rental system enacted under Thatcher and did little to increase the supply of social housing.

Yet even as current shadow ministers imagine that the Labour tradition validates their generous view of the motivations of the average private landlord, Labour history leans more to the side of the tenant.