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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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.