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Squatting? It's a choice between homelessness and a criminal record, says Laurie Penny

Moves to outlaw squatting in empty houses should be an outrage on the left.

The police called some of them "scum". Many of them who are not already among Britain's tens of thousands of homeless people will shortly become so, following today's ratification of Clause 26 of the Legal Aid bill, which criminalises squatting in empty houses.

And yet, as officers moved in against the impromptu demonstration outside Parliament on Monday night -- dragging and forcibly removing many -- the demonstrators sat down, linked arms and sang "Happy Birthday". "It's one way to defuse a situation like that," said a 26-year old squatter, who did not want to give his name.

The passing of this amendment, tabled in the face of overwhelming public pressure, means that most of the 20,000 citizens who currently live in empty or abandoned housing stock in Britain will be forced to choose between homelessness and a criminal record -- maximum sentence is a year's jailtime and a £5,000 fine.

I have written before about the misrepresentation of squatting in the press, but given that there are over half a million empty properties in Britain, half a million "hidden homeless", five million people currently on the housing list and tens of thousands more facing homelessness as a result of government cuts to housing benefit, according to leading homelessness charities, it should be a point of outrage on the left that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have thrown their support behind the anti-squatting amendment.

This, however, is a campaign that has, from the start, been about turning the property-owning middle classes against the poor.

The tabloid narrative, pushed most heavily by the Evening Standard, has been that decent, hardworking homeowners come home from holiday and find their houses invaded by filthy reprobates who are somehow protected by law from being evicted. In fact, in the few incidents where occupied buildings are squatted, there is already legislation in place to criminalise those who threaten homeowners in this way, under the terms of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

This new amendment would make it an offence to squat any empty residential building -- even if it has been abandoned for years. With rents going up, wages going down and homelessness a very real possibility for tens of thousands of people, one can understand why a government determined not to actually fund infrastructure investments like housing projects would want to stop desperate people getting any ideas.

Actual cases of hostile home takeovers are incredibly few and far between. A government consultation on the proposed changes to the law found that out of thousands of respondents, over 90 per cent agreed that no changes were necessary, whilst just ten wrote in to say that they had been "victims" of squatting.

Most squatters do not pose a threat to ordinary homeowners, but they are a potential embarrassment to a government whose best response to the housing crisis is to make homelessness illegal, which is rather like solving a food shortage by making hunger illegal.

Squatting an empty property is an act of defiance, a reclamation of psychic space, and it is no accident that police have focused on raiding squats and other "alternative" communities while searching for dissidents and student protesters this year. Many, although by no means all, squats have become centres for alternative thought, in which people attempt to live outside of the restrictions of capital and consumerism, building new kinds of community. Most have no more illicit aims than running free mother-and-toddler yoga sessions for local residents, but that's exactly the kind of Big Society organisation that's punishable by a night in the cells in David Cameron's Britain.

Squatting is an ancient right, enshrined in the British tradition of the Commons -- or it was, until today. In Cameron's Britain, there is no room for diggers and dreamers, no space for the destitute and homeless who make lives for themselves in the cracks between capitalism. The confiscation of that right will make thousands homeless, for no better reason than spite.

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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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