George Cooper and the Fight for Council Housing

Argus title : Make your voice heard as a tribute

George Cooper died in Brighton on 8th February 1994, aged 84. He was a labour activist, a trade unionist and above all a tenants’ organiser. It’s still hard to believe he isn’t around.

I first met George at a party. I was intrigued by this extraordinary man – in his late 70s, wearing saggy blue jeans, arguing, dancing and drinking pints like a youngster. He was passionate about politics, but he also had an almost child-like capacity for joy.

The son of a railwayman, George left school at 14 to work as a draughtsman in a Brighton factory. The 1926 General Strike was his defining political experience.

The General Strike was called by the Trades Union Congress on 1st May 1926 in defence of mineworkers who – despite the fact that they already worked for low wages in dangerous privately-owned mines – were being asked to accept a universal 7 day week and a drop in wages of up to 25%. The mine owners had declared that if the miners did not accept the new terms they would be locked out of the pits. The miners refused.

The strike started on 3rd May and by the second day approaching 2 million people were on strike, with the nation’s transport at a standstill. Though the government had spent months and even years preparing for just such an eventuality it was alarmed by the strength of the strike. Rich young people volunteered to work alongside the army and police to help keep services going.
In Brighton there was widespread sympathy for the strike and the town’s tram service was soon at a standstill.

On 11th May volunteers were deployed to help take out the trams. Four thousand people, many of them strikers, gathered to protest outside the tramway depot in Lewes Road. The crowd refused to disperse even when confronted by hundreds of police and a mounted corps of 50 men carrying batons. In a bloody battle, police attacked the strikers with batons and they retaliated with bricks and bottles. It was one of the most brutal incidents of the entire strike.

George witnessed this confrontation, which came to be known as the “Battle of Lewes Road”. He claimed to have seen the first brick thrown and always maintained that it was lobbed by a police agent. There were many injuries and arrests. Severe sentences were imposed on the strikers and many of them were sent to prison.

In contrast, police and volunteers who had attacked the strikers were honoured with special certificates, victory parades and a celebration dinner. Many strikers lost their jobs.

George never forgot this injustice and became an active trade unionist. He remained a member of his union (TASS, later MSF) for 64 years until his death.

In the 1960s he became a key figure in Brighton’s influential Trades Council, serving as its president for 12 years. At this time the Trades Council had widespread support and fought many campaigns.

In his later years, George became a tireless campaigner for pensioners’ and council tenants’rights. I served on Council Committees with him and used to watch in astonishment as he would effortlessly upstage councillors, ensuring that whatever point he wanted to get across would be printed in the next day’s Argus. He was a master of the sound-bite, before any of us had ever heard the term.

His timing was superb. He’d rise to his feet flushed with passion, addressing whatever hapless councillor was in the chair with withering force. Occasionally he’d throw down a pencil in righteous anger. It was only a few inches, but the effect was like lobbing a grenade. When he’d finished he’d sit down, sorrowfully shaking his head at the inadequacy of politicians. When the discussion had moved on, he’d turn surreptitiously towards me and I’d see just the hint of a wink.

George had a firm and passionate faith in the capacity of people to change the world by organisation and co-operation. He was quite without cynicism and proud to be a Utopian socialist. He didn’t just believe in the possibility of a society based on justice, shared wealth and common ownership, he knew it would come. As I said at George’s funeral, he didn’t just have a vision of Jerusalem, he was building the Golden City, day by day, brick by brick. Every rally and march he attended, every petition he organised or signed, every speech and letter to the newspapers – each was a stone laid, upon which others would build.

Adam Trimingham once called George “the Grand Old Man of the Left”. He was right, but it wasn’t a comfortable role. George knew that the gains of the poor would remain under constant attack. That was one reason why even in old age he so passionately defended the NHS and council housing. These were the two great achievements of the first Labour government and he fought tooth and nail to defend them.

Had he lived George would have been appalled by the actions of Blair’s Labour government. In particular, he would have been enraged by government attacks on the health service and council housing. He believed passionately in the right of all citizens to decent health care and safe, secure and affordable housing.

He would have been truly horrified by current moves to transfer Brighton & Hove’s council stock away from public ownership. The idea that the council would engage a communications company and pay at least £800,000 to persuade reluctant tenants to agree to a sell off they don’t want would have appalled him. More than pencils would have been flying.

George fought Margaret Thatcher’s government when it introduced the sale of council housing and restrictions on councils’ right to repair and rebuild. He worked with the first Labour administration in Brighton to circumvent Tory attempts to undermine public housing – and to ensure that our council housing was kept in good repair.

Had he been alive when Labour came to power, George would have been disappointed, though not surprised, that the new government did not immediately repeal Tory legislation. However, he could not have imagined that a Labour government would so enthusiastically promote private ownership – or that Labour councillors in Brighton & Hove would advocate transfer of ownership of council housing. It would have broken his heart.

The council argues that the transfer to a housing association, would unlock millions of pounds of Government money to renovate rundown properties. George, in common with hundreds of Labour M.P.s, and many thousands of council tenants, would argue that this government money should be made available to councils whose tenants wish to remain with them. This is the so-called “4th option”.

It is the last few days before the tenants’ ballot in Brighton. Had he lived, George would undoubtedly have spent this time protesting, knocking on doors, persuading tenants not to be bullied and to stand up for their birthright. He’d have been in the thick of things, organizing marches on parliament, trying to persuade the government to change direction.

George would have been tickled pink that when the council, in desperation, asked housing employees to go door to door to persuade tenants to vote its way, local unions instructed their members not to co-operate. Managers had to do it.
He would not have been so pleased at the possibility that the district housing office in Oxford Street which, after his death was named after him, might pass into private hands.

George was a generous man. Despite the firmness of his convictions, he had a rare capacity to admit his mistakes and to try to put them right. He would have been angry at the council’s actions, but he would have been swift to view them as a mistake which could be put right by tenant resistance. He possessed great courage, forcing himself to the limit in all that he did.

I spoke to George on the day he died. He said he was in a rush. He said: “I’ve got too much to do. . . I can’t stay here,,,”, He told me he was in the middle of writing a letter to the Argus about a housing matter and wanted to finish it. I said he should rest for a bit and not worry about it. He looked puzzled and said: “But it’s important!”

That was typical of George. Just 3 hours before he collapsed with the stroke that killed him he was thinking, not about himself, but about other people and his beloved council housing.

George wouldn’t much have bothered that a housing office had been named after him. A far better memorial to his life would be a “No” vote in the forthcoming ballot.

2 responses to “George Cooper and the Fight for Council Housing

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