11/01/22

Scotland’s tenants’ union at the crossroads

by Connor Beaton
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Half a decade after transforming itself from a small campaigning organisation into a mass-membership tenants’ union, Living Rent now boasts over 2,000 members and a dozen branches across Scotland – a testament to its success in organising low- and middle-income renters in a challenging period where the politics of class and inequality have often been pushed to the margins. Now, however, faultlines are emerging over issues as profound as who Living Rent is for, as well as the relationship between its rank-and-file members and paid employees. How these issues are resolved will be decisive in determining the future of Scotland’s tenants’ union.

Two recent events in Living Rent merit closer scrutiny by members and supporters. The first is the union’s 2021 annual general meeting (AGM), which included contentious debates on distinct yet complementary proposals for the union to admit homeowners as full members and to adopt a broader political programme for “community power”. The second is the situation which has developed following complaints about a transphobic staff member and the union’s poor response to those complaints.

Who is Living Rent for?

At present, Living Rent’s constitution extends membership to “any person resident in Scotland who rents their home”, with the exception of landlords and letting agents. Living Rent’s outgoing national committee (NC) invited the 2021 AGM, which took place over Zoom at the start of October, to debate whether membership should be widened to include homeowners while continuing to exclude landlords and letting agents.

It is important to note that there already are homeowners who play a part in the union without having full membership. Although unable to vote on motions or stand for internal elections, a number of homeowners participated in the debate at the AGM – some arguing for a change in the rules, and some arguing against. The debate over membership is ultimately about a more fundamental question: whether Living Rent should be a tenants’ union with an exclusive focus on housing issues, or whether it should be a community union organising around all kinds of issues. This question also underpinned the second motion brought to the AGM by the outgoing NC, which called on Living Rent to develop a “programme for community power” beyond housing issues.

This debate has been at least partly informed by reference to ACORN UK, which was founded in Bristol at roughly the same time Living Rent was taking form in 2014 and is the closest analogue to Living Rent in England and Wales (except in London, which has an independent and impressive London Renters Union). ACORN describes itself as a “union for the community” open to all low- and middle-income people; its work spans a wide range from hyper-local campaigns around speed limits and bin collections to regional campaigns for bringing bus services back into public ownership. However, the bulk of its work and its greatest accomplishments have been in the sphere of housing, which has brought it into close co-operation with Living Rent. A critical evaluation of ACORN’s development and its relationship to the Labour Party would be a useful contribution to the debate over Living Rent’s status.

In recent months and years, Living Rent has campaigned on wider issues from migrant rights to climate change, but has presented each of these through the prism of housing and as effectively overlapping with the interests of tenants. Likewise, its support for striking cleansing workers in Glasgow has been expressed on the basis of the impact of cleansing cuts on tenants, as well as the principle of working class solidarity with other unions. This has worked well so far.

In some areas, particularly the Wyndford in Glasgow, homeowners have played a key role in Living Rent’s campaigning work. This is uncontroversial. Where the clearest division emerged in the at times fractious AGM debate was on the question of whether tenants and homeowners have distinct interests and whether it is possible to champion both. To some, Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme had sought to create “a division between homeowners and renters” which organisers should reject; others went as far as to argue that the distinction between a tenant and a mortgagee is meaningless, as both involve a degree of housing precarity. A persuasive counterpoint raised in the debate is that tenants have an interest in house prices coming down and homeowners have an interest in house prices going up, a divergence of interests with serious implications for, among other things, the campaign for rent controls, which has been central to Living Rent’s existence and the source of one of its most dramatic political victories.

The motion to allow homeowners to join the union as full members was ultimately rejected; with 47% in favour and 53% against, it fell far short of the 75% threshold for constitutional amendments. The second motion on a programme for community power required only a simple majority and was approved by an overwhelming 73% of members, with 27% opposed. Given the apparently contradictory response to two motions which were presented as complementary, it is likely the debate over Living Rent’s status will continue this year and beyond.

Democracy in the union

Beyond the outcome, however, a notable feature of the debates was the obvious discomfort in some quarters with the intensity of the discussion. There was as robust a dialogue playing out through Zoom’s built-in chat function as there was in the formal proceedings of the meeting; many more than the small handful of people taking part in the formal debate contributed through short written messages, setting out their views or their agreement and disagreement with various speakers. This was apparently tolerated until the debate on the second motion was well under way, at which point Living Rent’s national organiser – effectively its top staff member – abruptly asked members not to use the chat for anything beyond technical questions, before rowing back just as quickly when questioned on the arbitrary change in rules in the heat of debate. Though there are legitimate reasons to limit chat functions during a formal meeting, as RSP members said in the aftermath of the 2021 RIC AGM, rule changes like this should not be imposed from above and applied inconsistently, particularly during a contentious debate.

The impulse to minimise discussion was even clearer in the subsequent debate on a motion from the Wyndford branch, which proposed that the union’s NC should be elected every two years instead of every year. The original draft debated in the branch went even further, proposing elections every third AGM – potentially up to 54 months apart. The principal argument offered by the mover at the AGM was that continuing to have annual elections would encourage factionalism and “harsh political battles every year”, which would be “exhausting” for those involved. NC members, she argued, would become (or perhaps in her view already are) more focused on their re-election than doing their job, strangely separating democratic accountability from the function of an elected role.

This is altogether a disturbing point of view that casts democracy as a chore rather than a central and crucial component of working class organisation – an assertion that has traditionally presaged the bureaucratisation and deradicalisation of trade unions and political parties. This instinct to shy away from open and fierce discussion and debate is also what has exacerbated Living Rent’s painful mishandling of complaints of transphobia against one of its paid organisers.

Complaints of transphobia

Nick Durie, also known online as “James Porter”, is one of Living Rent’s four paid organisers in Glasgow. He is also an outspoken opponent of transgender rights and, latterly, an Alba Party activist who defends its reactionary social positions, chief among which is its regular invocation of the spirit and letter of 1980s homophobia by conflating trans people and their allies with perverts and predators. That Durie campaigns in his local Maryhill and the Wyndford on behalf of both his employer, Living Rent, and his political party, the Alba Party, has become a point of conflict in the union, particularly for its transgender and non-binary members.

Living Rent members who complained about Durie through the union’s formal structures this summer posted about their grievance on Living Rent’s national Facebook group in late November, feeling the complaints had not been properly addressed. After a long and contentious discussion, the thread was abruptly deleted by the group’s administrator – Durie’s wife, Ellenor Hutson, who incidentally had also moved the Wyndford branch’s AGM motion for two-year NC terms – on the basis that the group was exclusively for housing support questions. Members who then brought the discussion to Living Rent’s internal Slack platform found that their threads were deleted there by the national organiser, apparently with the backing of a majority of members of the new NC, which had not yet met. Members were effectively denied the right to discuss an issue which had effectively already become public and had significance for them. The matter is further complicated by the fact the union’s complaints procedure is relatively new and untested, with complaints being dealt with informally as late as 2020.

A week after the Facebook and Slack threads were censored, the new NC issued a statement which, after some welcome statements of outright opposition to transphobia and an explicit recognition of the diverse character of the Scottish working class, appeared to conflate members holding their own staff members to account with “harassment and bullying”. It said that NC members and staff had “taken decisions to delete certain social media posts with the aim of preventing both harm and harassment”, and put this aim on equal footing with members’ concerns about transphobia within the union. Without addressing the complaints against Durie directly, it said the union was processing complaints and that it would bring in “external HR support” as a matter of priority within the next two months. This risks introducing yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already opaque and unsatisfactory process.

The NC has promised to provide “space for members to discuss, at the local and national level, the issues that have arisen”, and there have been encouraging signs that such discussions have been and are being facilitated in local branches and groups. However, these appear to have been framed in vague terms around ‘tackling transphobia in the union’ without directly addressing the complaints against Durie, who continues to represent the union as a paid official. It is also unclear how, if at all, these local discussions will feed into national decisions. Remarkably, members’ ability to post in Living Rent’s main Slack channel remains “suspended”.

Both the AGM debates and the ongoing transphobia scandal are suggestive of a hierarchical internal culture in Living Rent where NC members and staff, whether intentionally or otherwise, manage and where necessary suppress debate in order to protect the administration of the union. This is not what a members-led democracy looks like; members should have an active role in decision-making, rather than a passive role mediated through elected officers and employees.

It is especially troubling that Durie was apparently present at a small in-person meeting of the Wyndford branch in early December which removed the incumbent secretary, Sam Sharp, for having criticised him in online discussions. A substantial statement published by Sharp early this year provides a valuable insight into the internal dynamics of the Wyndford branch, described as “a cluster of folk based around [Nick Durie’s] close associates”. It is perhaps noteworthy that Sharp’s removal was proposed by a strong supporter of the AGM motion on admitting homeowners – so strong that the member in question abruptly announced his resignation during the AGM when the debate appeared to turn against it, before quietly rescinding his resignation weeks later – and leaves the branch with no tenant committee members.

Building class power

For socialists, organisations like Living Rent have a significance beyond their role in delivering reforms like the introduction of rent controls or the construction of new social housing, as important as these are. By taking on landlords with the collective strength of tenants, Living Rent is building working class consciousness and power, without which there is no hope of transformative social and economic change of the type we imagine and fight for. At the minimum, it teaches tenant members the power of class solidarity. At a larger scale, we can look to Berlin, where a strong tenants’ movement last year delivered a referendum result in favour of expropriating the German capital’s biggest commercial landlords; if seen through, this will wrest at least some power from the capitalist class in favour of those who work for a living.

Living Rent has certainly punched above its weight since its establishment less than a decade ago, and is to thank for rent controls being forced onto the national political agenda (albeit on a slow and uncertain timetable). It has achieved more in its time than many organisations with greater numbers and resources, including long-established institutions of the left and the labour movement. This is precisely because of an organising model which is more or less grassroots and democratic. Opposing the prospective bureaucratisation or ‘NGO-ification’ of the union, wherein elected officers and paid organisers have exclusive political control and progressively relegate lay members to a more passive role as foot-soldiers to be directed from above, is to defend its record and make it a more powerful working class organisation.

Whether becoming a ‘community union’ would help Living Rent in this regard, as most of its staff members appear to believe, is unclear and would benefit from a longer, more considered debate. The case of Nick Durie, by comparison, is clear-cut. If members are not given the opportunity to remove him from his paid public role, Living Rent is not a democratic organisation. If he is allowed to continue while actively campaigning for the rolling-back of trans rights, the union’s base will likely narrow, excluding working class LGBT+ people who are already more likely to be in precarious housing – it will no longer be an organisation of the renting working class in all of its diversity. As Scotland continues to go through the political tumult of the constitutional stalemate and the Covid-19 crisis, whether Living Rent members reassert their rightful leadership of the union could prove more important than it seems.

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