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International Socialism, Autumn 1967


John Rex

From a Reader


From International Socialism, No.30 (1st series), Autumn 1967, pp.23-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I am most grateful to Mr Taylor (IS 29, summer 1967) for his sympathetic review of our book and more especially for the way in which he draws attention to the structural sociology in terms of which we make our description of Sparkbrook’s housing and race relations problems (John Rex and Robert Moore, Race, Community and Conflict – a study of Sparkbrook, Oxford 1967). I therefore gladly accept his invitation to reply to his criticisms.

The first point I should perhaps make is simply a practical one. The research project was mounted on a very small budget indeed and had the limited aim of exploring the relations between the system of housing allocation and race relations in Sparkbrook. The question of the extent to which the system of housing allocation is dependent upon class relations and conflict in industry is an empirical one which we were unable to explore with the time and resources at our disposal.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile discussing, as Mr Taylor does, what would be involved in such a study, and it is on this question that I really wish to reply. In doing so I should like to defend my own argument about the role of the working class, the Labour Party, the immigrant organisations and of social workers as we saw them in Sparkbrook.

During the period of our study the Labour Party was in power in Birmingham. We suggested that it represented the interests of the established Birmingham working class, which had grown up in the little red-brick cottages built for industrial hands in the mid-nineteenth century, and many of whose members now lived in rented Council Houses on suburban estates. Operating within the structure of capitalist society, this party had created a bureaucratic sector within the system of housing allocation and rights to housing within this sector were determined by the priorities set by the Council group and by the City Labour Party.

Now it is possible to argue that had there been a revolution which had overthrown the present system of financing housebuilding, more houses would have been built, the pressure would have been less acute and the Labour Party less restrictive and self-interested in its allocation of the housing stock. It is also possible to argue that the advocacy of such a revolution would be the way to a long-term solution of the problem. What is quite wrong, woolly-minded and idealistic, however, is to pretend that such a revolution is at all likely to emerge from the Labour Party in its present form. What one did observe was a minority of middle-class members of the City Party demanding on egalitarian grounds an end to the more blatant forms of discrimination.

The behaviour of the Labour Councillors and Party members, moreover, is what one would expect even though it is not what one might wish. They represent workers who, in attempting to find homes for their families, find themselves confronted with a system of market and bureaucratic allocation which is intensely competitive. The traditional response of the organised and established sections of the working class has been to try to increase the size of the bureaucratic sector, and in that sector to impose their own priorities. In place of wealth and security of income as criteria, they have put length of residence.

That the immigrant is discriminated against in the market sector needs no proof beyond that available in the PEP report. Very often he would be in a position to find a deposit and get himself a mortgage if there were not discrimination by building societies and estate agents. But unlike the native-born worker, he cannot then turn to the bureaucratic sector. ‘Municipal Socialism’ discriminates against him as much as do the building societies.

In these circumstances the immigrant must clearly do what the workers of 50 years ago began to do, namely, to organise himself as a political force so as to use political power to lay claim to his share of the available housing resources. But it is realistic to recognise that his political power is limited, both by his small numbers and by the fact that the native working class is arrayed against him. (One may perhaps contrast his situation with that of the American Negro whose numbers are greater, whose traditions of political organisation are stronger and who does not confront native working-class power in the Town Halls.)

What the immigrant has to do in these circumstances is to undertake militant political action on his own behalf and at the same time to do what he can to educate his native working-class ‘hosts.’ But he would be quite misguided if he were in any way to rely upon a Labour Party geared to defending the privileges of its own members. It is not without significance that Mr Grossman redeemed Mr Wilson’s pledge of aid to areas with high concentrations of immigrants by giving Birmingham extra aid to build even more houses for those qualifying on the present restrictive criteria.

Clearly what is needed is an articulate voice which speaks for the interests not only of the immigrants but of all those against whom the market sector and the bureaucratic sector discriminates. In the long run it will be an immigrant voice as surely as the voice of the underprivileged in America is a Negro voice. But until that voice is heard, it will be people like Audrey Harvey, Peter Townsend, the authors of Cathy, Molly Barrow and Elizabeth Tompkins of the Sparkbrook Association who come nearest to articulating the interests of the underprivileged. At the moment, it seems to me to be more realistic to help them in their campaigns than it does to urge the people of Sparkbrook to go out and work for the return of Roy Hattersley to Parliament.

The time may come when this situation changes. Conceivably the shop stewards of Longbridge will produce a Labour Party which stands for an end of all the forms of exploitation of man by man and will campaign at the grass-roots for better housing conditions for all. I think that Mr Taylor needs to show that this is likely before he dismisses our own perspective as ‘reformist.’ In other words, I am suggesting that to substitute a myth of the working class and its historical role for serious research and analysis makes for bad sociology and idealistic and irrelevant politics.

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