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In defence of squatting: Laurie Penny on a long-standing tradition

The occupation of private property is brave and necessary.

Squatting is such an ugly word. It implies that young, skint and precariously housed people who set up homes in the vacant properties of the landed elite are somehow crouching there to defecate, rather than building communities in dead investment space abandoned by the rich.

The education activists who were evicted last weekend from Guy Ritchie's £6m Fitzrovia mansion have been portrayed by the tabloids as a "gang" of criminal yobs. They are nothing of the kind: not least because they have done nothing illegal by creating a Free School, designed to "cultivate equality through collaboration" in an empty mansion belonging to a millionaire film director who already owns several more.

Squatting empty buildings is not a criminal offence. It is, in fact, an ancient right, a tradition that can be traced back over centuries of popular dissent and pragmatism. After the Second World War, thousands of ex-servicemen and families with nowhere else to go began to squat in London, and their stoicism and ingenuity was vindicated by public opinion.

The social history of Britain -- from the Kett rebellion to the True Levellers to Peterloo, from the Suffragettes to the environmental activists who have just prevented this government from selling the forests to timber companies -- is largely the history of working people trying to stop the rich from hoarding space, assets and rights that were once held in common. It is a history of the struggle of ordinary people to build lives for themselves in a world whose physical boundaries are set by the interests of property and of profit, and the Really Free School, along with other similar groups that are being set up as I write, represent, in their own words, "the latest chapter in a long history of resistance".

Five centuries after Robert Kett and his brother were tortured and hanged for demanding that "no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons", the struggle is ongoing. In a country where there is increasingly little space for the poor, the young and the needy, where benefit cuts and the decimation of the voluntary sector are likely to leave many more individuals and community groups with nowhere to live and work, the re-appropriation of space by occupation and squatting is set to become more important than ever.

It is not my place to speak for or on behalf of the Really Free School, which has moved to a new location following its eviction from Fitzroy Square. The space, with its classes on law and literature, its free kitchen and its library, speaks for itself. Despite the spiteful portrayal of these squatters in the tabloids, not all of their new neighbours wanted the Free Schoolers to leave.

"The Really Free School has taken a house that was not being used and created a space where ordinary people could get together and learn from each other and draw attention to the state of education in Britain," wrote Linus Rees, chair of trustees of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, which represents the "poor and marginalised" residents of the area as well as more privileged locals such as Ritchie.

"In Fitzrovia, hostels that support vulnerable people are due to be shut and community services are under threat because of the government cuts," said Rees. "These young people are a credit to their generation and we would do well to embrace their enthusiasm for trying to bring about a better society."

Many squatted communities have been welcomed by local residents. Recently, a residential squat in Dalston was preserved after neighbours joined a campaign to support the occupiers. St Agnes Place, a street in Kennington that was squatted for over thirty years, provided social centres, hostels and street parties for the local community and was an international destination for artists and musicians until it was finally evicted in 2005 and the buildings demolished.

Squatting is not a criminal offence, but a moral question, and the question is simple. Do you think that, in a country where half a million people are homeless and a further half million "hidden homeless" are sleeping on their friends' sofas because they have nowhere else to go, in a country where the housing crisis is so acute that people are being sent to prison for begging, it is sensible for half a million residential properties to be standing empty, accruing capital for the well-off?

Do you believe that, in a country where 650,000 households are overcrowded, where the government has declared that it can no longer afford to help the landless sick, disabled and poorly paid to sleep safely because it needs to give tax breaks to bankers, it is right that so many commercial buildings are vacant, boarded up and patrolled by private security firms?

Do you consider it fair that there is less than no room for the young, the poor, the disabled and the disenfranchised in this society, while the rich control more space than they know what to do with?

It is manifestly in the interests of those who own and hold all this disused property, including the millionaires who make up the Cabinet, to misrepresent Britain's 15,000 squatters and occupiers as -- in the words of the Times -- a "dangerous scourge". Otherwise the hundreds of thousands of people paying 90 per cent of their salary for poky rooms hours from their places of work might start getting ideas.

The community organisers might start getting ideas. The charities, the homeless families and the youth groups struggling to survive might start thinking, "Hey -- there's a lot of empty space going spare. Why don't we just take the space for ourselves?"

There is so much that could be done with Britain's empty properties. The women's refuges and asylum centres whose funding is about to be withdrawn could use the space to continue the valuable work they do in local communities, work that is about to be abruptly curtailed by Conservative funding cuts. More free schools and community centres are already being planned across and outside London. But the reoccupation of private space is more than just pragmatism in the face of austerity.

Occupation is a deeply political act, whether it is done for years or, as with this week's UK Uncut protests, which re-appropriated bank branches and turned them into reading groups and children's centres, for mere minutes.

There are reasons that so many banners hanging outside occupied public spaces and the placards on public marches read "resist; strike; occupy".

Occupations are just as important as marches and strikes in the context of resistance movements. They allow us to redraw the physical contours of our political reality. They provide people with centres to share skills and build links in spaces that are truly common, spaces that we do not have to enter under sufferance. They respond to a government seeking to turn every public asset into a private revenue stream, by turning private assets into public resources. And they make it clear that private property need not be the whole of the law.

Less than 100 years ago, men and women who did not own property were not permitted to vote; we were not considered real citizens. Today, a barely-elected government underwrites the interests of a landed elite while cutting benefits and services for those who already live on next to nothing, because it does not consider those without property to be its constituency, because those without property do not win elections for the parliamentary class.

I believe that in these circumstances squatting, occupation and the re-appropriation of disused private property is more than merely appropriate: it is a deeply moral and courageous response, a response that neighbours, councils and local representatives should fully support.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.