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Celebrating the Tories' Bedroom Tax with Thousands of Angry Protesters

Summer's coming and the smell of class war's in the air in London again.
Simon Childs
London, GB
April 2, 2013, 7:00am

Yesterday, while much of Britain was too busy groaning in the recovery position to read the news, a whole new raft of benefit cuts that punish society's poorest for the mistakes of some moronic bankers were unleashed on the country. Granted, the British government might be [economically incompetent](http:// http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-the-budget-means-for-you), but Dave and his pinstriped chums sure have a knack for finding the perfect day to implement economic measures that basically everyone without a kilometre-long driveway is opposed to.

Those measures are the introduction of (deep breath) the “bedroom tax”, Personal Independence Payments to replace disability benefits, Universal Credit, cuts to council tax support, a cap on benefits, a freeze on benefit increases at one percent (i.e. less than the cost of living), cuts to legal aid and a “granny tax”. So, considering Easter is supposed to be a time of excess after your successful observance of Lenten restraint, things are about to get pretty bloody austere if you're old, disabled, poor or out of work.

I went to Trafalgar Square on Saturday to check out a protest against the so-called "bedroom tax" – the new measure that means that anybody who receives housing benefit and lives in a council house with a spare bedroom will see a 14 percent reduction in their benefit. Estimates predict it will cost the 660,000 households it will affect an average of £15 per week. It might not sound like much, but in context that's just under a third of what Iain Duncan Smith says people should be able to live on per week.

Some of the more pedantic political right-wingers, including the government, have pointed out that the policy is not actually a tax at all, merely a reduction in the “spare room subsidy”. The problem is that semantics don't really change the fact that two-thirds of those affected are disabled people who need their "spare" room for little disposable luxuries like the kidney dialysis machines that keep them alive, or somewhere for visiting relatives or non-approved carers to bunk up for the night.

When I arrived at the protest, I talked to Hayley – a 27-year-old gardener from Nottingham – who pointed out yet another reason why the bedroom tax blows: “They’re saying that people with spare bedrooms need to move into smaller properties, but there aren’t enough smaller properties for people to move into, so they’re trapped.”

That lack of smaller properties means people could be forced to move to expensive rented homes, which they would then need to claim extra benefit on. That complete lack of foresight has led experts to warn that, for all its injustices, the bedroom tax might not even save anyone any money.

Oh well, at least the tax is basically unworkable, with some councils already pledging not to evict people because of it, a Labour MP suggesting that residents can brick up doors and knock down walls to alter the number of bedrooms they have and campaigners encouraging people to get really [pernickety](http:// http://libcom.org/blog/how-combat-bedroom-tax-tape-measure-20022013) with tape measures.

As the protesters gathered, Socialist Workers vied for placard waving hegemony with people wearing V for Vendetta masks (who may or, more likely, may not be members of Anonymous) and readers of the Sunday People.

Yep, it's not just the media's left wing that is flapping at this Tory bastardery. Or maybe it's just that they're not doing it well enough, so papers that usually only figure out their front page after the X Factor results are in are stepping up to fill the void.

The bedroom tax has been likened to the poll tax of the early 90s, a policy so wildly unpopular that it resulted in a series of riots that nailed the coffin of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership firmly shut. However, the two man dressed for black bloc action hanging out on Nelson’s Column didn’t suggest much in the way of sexy, politically-fuelled carnage. Which was kind of a shame because everything was getting really, really dull by this point. I'd turned up hoping for The Dreamers and got an episode of Watchdog.

Luckily, that's when the march started to set off towards Downing Street and I got chatting to Michael Smithers, an ageing punk sporting a walking cane, a leather jacket and black star tattooed on his ear.

“Because of the cut backs to the health service, they forced me to take early retirement," Michael told me. "So I’m on benefits and now those benefits are being taken away from me. I’m a single parent and disabled. When my son goes to university – if, if, he can afford it – then I’ll have to pay a £15-a-week bedroom tax, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to keep him going through university. If I eventually need a mobility scooter, where am I going to put it? It would have to go in my son’s room.”

For whatever reason, I was cosmically drawn to ageing punks that afternoon, so I had a chat with green-bearded Ian while he sat in his wheelchair. “I have two bedrooms. I’m single. My brother and my family use my spare bedroom. I need it. It gets used all the time. I’m being penalised and I don’t like it,” he said.

Ian wasn’t too confident that he would benefit from the £30 million “discretionary fund” put aside by the government to help the most vulnerable people cope with the change. “I don’t know if I’m going to get it. I’ve filled out forms, but they might decide I’m not disabled enough. I’m still in limbo,” he told me.

Then I talked to Charlie, a retiree, who was of the opinion that a tax that scrutinised how you use the rooms in your own home and tries to ascertain "how disabled" people are is just a bit too creepy and invasive. “It’s cutting right into the heart of people’s personal life in a way that is really savage and appalling,” he said. “I'd like to see how the Tory ministers would react if that kind of intervention was made into their personal lives. They would find it an outrage.”

An outrage, he predicted, that people won’t stand for: “More people in the general public will understand how people’s lives are being torn apart and I don’t think they'll feel happy about it. If it’s just presented as a neat little economy that doesn’t really affect people then it becomes acceptable, but when you see how people’s lives are destroyed, that will help to build momentum.”

I reckon Charlie is probably right. The government’s line that the cuts are a necessary corrective for years of tax-payer funded benefit scrounging may be disingenuous, but it has been able to achieve a level of public acceptance, even support, for the cuts. However, the scale of this new round of austerity is on a whole new level.

Brace yourself to hear horror stories about people who fall between the cracks and are left behind by the reformed welfare system, as well those who less fall into a crack, but are more pushed into an open chasm, such as the 200,000 children who will find themselves officially in poverty. Meanwhile, the rich are getting a [tax break](http:// http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-the-budget-means-for-you), which I suppose seems perfectly reasonable when you think about it. Plus, I can't really see that breeding any kind of resentment among those being dicked on.

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The archetypal Tory bogeyman is no longer a figment of the liberal imagination, a warning from history delivered by lefty political cartoonists. He exists now in the public imagination as a gang of old Etonians repeatedly slapping a wheelchair-bound beggar before making off with their paper cup full of change and giving it to an energy company magnate to put towards a Sicilian wine cellar.

The question is whether people will get annoyed enough to do anything about it and how that will manifest itself. Are they going to twiddle their thumbs until voting Labour at the next election? Will the Socialist Workers Party get over the fallout of a recent rape cover-up and monopolise the resistance? Perhaps the People's Assembly will catch people's imagination with their ambition to be as successful as the anti-war movement. Maybe our cities will burn again – or maybe it'll be something else entirely.

I couldn't tell you for certain, but I know I'm not about to bet my wage on a quiet summer of people meekly accepting their livelihoods being snatched away.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13

More British politics:

What the Budget Means for You, Britain and Really Fucking Rich People

What Sort of Person Likes George Osborne?

I Interviewed My Local UKIP Rep After I Got Him Sacked and Banned

How the 2003 Anti-War March Changed British Politics Forever