Vicki Morris spoke to Eran Cohen from London Coalition Against Poverty about the ideas behind their network.
VM: What is “direct action casework” and what are its advantages/disadvantages over broader political campaigns around poverty?
EC: Direct action casework is a combination of social-work type legal casework mixed with direct action. The practice is fairly old (there’s many examples from the USA in the 1930s) and the idea is simple when operated in a welfare state: someone who is refused the housing/benefits they’re entitled to through intimidation or a dodgy legal basis (what we call gatekeeping) is supported by a combination of bureaucratic legal work — such as filling in the correct forms and writing threatening letters quoting relevant laws — and, when the time is right, an office occupation or other suitable offensive pressure.
We don’t see DAC to be used instead of a broad political campaign, but as a tool to build the collective confidence of our constituency in order to have an effective campaign.
When individuals win concrete results through struggle they gain the confidence to do so again and again, turning themselves into an example of effective working class solidarity in action. And when those individuals gain the insight to become successful organisers in their hostel/estate/workplace/jobcentre what we see is exponential growth in confidence. A confident constituency is the fundamental base for a militant campaign.
VM: For now your activities are small-scale and for the most part they are local to Hackney. How do you spread your campaigning model to other places? How important to you is it to do this?
EC: We think it is vital to see new groups across London become part of the coalition. As a class our power lies in numbers and organisation, so even a claimants/tenants group in every ward could fail to make an impact if they were not federated or otherwise coordinated.
As far as helping new groups set up, it’s a bit more complicated. Our methods take a year or so (based on our experience in Hackney) to bear the fruits of self-managing organisation, so it is hard to just go into a new area and begin organising. What we tend to do is get in touch with groups and individuals who want to use the LCAP model in their area and give them the resources, training and advice needed to do so.
VM: A few questions about the way you organise. How often do you elect officers (treasurer, etc)? Who’s eligible to take part in elections? Do you have a constitution?
EC: We have several officer posts, and these roles are elected every year at our AGM. Despite working in quite wide constituencies, we are a membership organisation. Only members can stand for election and vote at AGMs. And yes, we have a constitution.
VM: You raise most of your funds from donations and fundraising, are there are any types of organisations, eg, union branches, that you would take money from?
EC: We have accepted donations from union branches in the past and are happy to continue doing so. Initially we had a foundation grant which saw us through two years of activity, but we have decided not to accept such funding in the future as it can lay us open to compromise and manipulation.
VM: A big focus of your work has been on challenging “gatekeeping” at, for example, local authorities’ Homeless Person Units. Does this bring you into conflict with workers? Do you think that you can build bridges to workers in places like this? How would you do it? Is that a priority for you?
EC: We do unfortunately end up with some workers becoming “enemy figures” in the course of a group’s struggle. When doing outreach (flyering) at the Homeless Persons’ Unit we usually take a few leaflets aimed at workers, explaining what we are doing.
During actions we always make it clear to the workers that we are not there to fight them, but the housing system and policies which force them to gatekeep in order to fulfil targets.
This is not true in every case, though, as we have had to take action against specific housing officers who have been quite abusive to homeless claimants (in one case, the housing officer rudely questioned a woman’s claims that she was escaping domestic violence, and kept another claimant locked in a small interview room with no ventilation for a whole hour, while her toddler was in the lobby on the other side of the door).
VM: On a related theme, what subgroups do you have? Where besides Hackney are there groups?
EC: In Hackney we have the Housing Group (formerly Hostel Residents Group, but now they have started working with other non-council tenants) and the Hackney Unemployed Workers Group (who operate as a claimants union and campaigning group around Hackney Jobcentre).
In South London we have SELCAP (South East London CAP) who currently are not campaigning but are regularly doing casework.
There’s talk of a new group being set up in Waltham Forest, although I don’t have any more details on it, and another potential group in Brent. We have close contact and some cross-membership with Haringey Claimants Union and hopefully we will be working closely with them soon.