Scotland’s Tenants’ Union at the Crossroads

Half a decade after transforming itself from a small campaigning organisation into a mass-membership tenants’ union, Living Rent now boasts over 2,000 members and a dozen branches across Scotland – a testament to its success in organising low- and middle-income renters in a challenging period where the politics of class and inequality have often been pushed to the margins. Now, however, faultlines are emerging over issues as profound as who Living Rent is for, as well as the relationship between its rank-and-file members and paid employees. How these issues are resolved will be decisive in determining the future of Scotland’s tenants’ union.

Two recent events in Living Rent merit closer scrutiny by members and supporters. The first is the union’s 2021 annual general meeting (AGM), which included contentious debates on distinct yet complementary proposals for the union to admit homeowners as full members and to adopt a broader political programme for “community power”. The second is the situation which has developed following complaints about a transphobic staff member and the union’s poor response to those complaints.

Who is Living Rent for?

At present, Living Rent’s constitution extends membership to “any person resident in Scotland who rents their home”, with the exception of landlords and letting agents. Living Rent’s outgoing national committee (NC) invited the 2021 AGM, which took place over Zoom at the start of October, to debate whether membership should be widened to include homeowners while continuing to exclude landlords and letting agents.

It is important to note that there already are homeowners who play a part in the union without having full membership. Although unable to vote on motions or stand for internal elections, a number of homeowners participated in the debate at the AGM – some arguing for a change in the rules, and some arguing against. The debate over membership is ultimately about a more fundamental question: whether Living Rent should be a tenants’ union with an exclusive focus on housing issues, or whether it should be a community union organising around all kinds of issues. This question also underpinned the second motion brought to the AGM by the outgoing NC, which called on Living Rent to develop a “programme for community power” beyond housing issues.

This debate has been at least partly informed by reference to ACORN UK, which was founded in Bristol at roughly the same time Living Rent was taking form in 2014 and is the closest analogue to Living Rent in England and Wales (except in London, which has an independent and impressive London Renters Union). ACORN describes itself as a “union for the community” open to all low- and middle-income people; its work spans a wide range from hyper-local campaigns around speed limits and bin collections to regional campaigns for bringing bus services back into public ownership. However, the bulk of its work and its greatest accomplishments have been in the sphere of housing, which has brought it into close co-operation with Living Rent. A critical evaluation of ACORN’s development and its relationship to the Labour Party would be a useful contribution to the debate over Living Rent’s status.

In recent months and years, Living Rent has campaigned on wider issues from migrant rights to climate change, but has presented each of these through the prism of housing and as effectively overlapping with the interests of tenants. Likewise, its support for striking cleansing workers in Glasgow has been expressed on the basis of the impact of cleansing cuts on tenants, as well as the principle of working class solidarity with other unions. This has worked well so far.

In some areas, particularly the Wyndford in Glasgow, homeowners have played a key role in Living Rent’s campaigning work. This is uncontroversial. Where the clearest division emerged in the at times fractious AGM debate was on the question of whether tenants and homeowners have distinct interests and whether it is possible to champion both. To some, Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme had sought to create “a division between homeowners and renters” which organisers should reject; others went as far as to argue that the distinction between a tenant and a mortgagee is meaningless, as both involve a degree of housing precarity. A persuasive counterpoint raised in the debate is that tenants have an interest in house prices coming down and homeowners have an interest in house prices going up, a divergence of interests with serious implications for, among other things, the campaign for rent controls, which has been central to Living Rent’s existence and the source of one of its most dramatic political victories.

The motion to allow homeowners to join the union as full members was ultimately rejected; with 47% in favour and 53% against, it fell far short of the 75% threshold for constitutional amendments. The second motion on a programme for community power required only a simple majority and was approved by an overwhelming 73% of members, with 27% opposed. Given the apparently contradictory response to two motions which were presented as complementary, it is likely the debate over Living Rent’s status will continue this year and beyond.

Democracy in the union

Beyond the outcome, however, a notable feature of the debates was the obvious discomfort in some quarters with the intensity of the discussion. There was as robust a dialogue playing out through Zoom’s built-in chat function as there was in the formal proceedings of the meeting; many more than the small handful of people taking part in the formal debate contributed through short written messages, setting out their views or their agreement and disagreement with various speakers. This was apparently tolerated until the debate on the second motion was well under way, at which point Living Rent’s national organiser – effectively its top staff member – abruptly asked members not to use the chat for anything beyond technical questions, before rowing back just as quickly when questioned on the arbitrary change in rules in the heat of debate. Though there are legitimate reasons to limit chat functions during a formal meeting, as RSP members said in the aftermath of the 2021 RIC AGM, rule changes like this should not be imposed from above and applied inconsistently, particularly during a contentious debate.

The impulse to minimise discussion was even clearer in the subsequent debate on a motion from the Wyndford branch, which proposed that the union’s NC should be elected every two years instead of every year. The original draft debated in the branch went even further, proposing elections every third AGM – potentially up to 54 months apart. The principal argument offered by the mover at the AGM was that continuing to have annual elections would encourage factionalism and “harsh political battles every year”, which would be “exhausting” for those involved. NC members, she argued, would become (or perhaps in her view already are) more focused on their re-election than doing their job, strangely separating democratic accountability from the function of an elected role.

This is altogether a disturbing point of view that casts democracy as a chore rather than a central and crucial component of working class organisation – an assertion that has traditionally presaged the bureaucratisation and deradicalisation of trade unions and political parties. This instinct to shy away from open and fierce discussion and debate is also what has exacerbated Living Rent’s painful mishandling of complaints of transphobia against one of its paid organisers.

Complaints of transphobia

Nick Durie, also known online as “James Porter”, is one of Living Rent’s four paid organisers in Glasgow. He is also an outspoken opponent of transgender rights and, latterly, an Alba Party activist who defends its reactionary social positions, chief among which is its regular invocation of the spirit and letter of 1980s homophobia by conflating trans people and their allies with perverts and predators. That Durie campaigns in his local Maryhill and the Wyndford on behalf of both his employer, Living Rent, and his political party, the Alba Party, has become a point of conflict in the union, particularly for its transgender and non-binary members.

Living Rent members who complained about Durie through the union’s formal structures this summer posted about their grievance on Living Rent’s national Facebook group in late November, feeling the complaints had not been properly addressed. After a long and contentious discussion, the thread was abruptly deleted by the group’s administrator – Durie’s wife, Ellenor Hutson, who incidentally had also moved the Wyndford branch’s AGM motion for two-year NC terms – on the basis that the group was exclusively for housing support questions. Members who then brought the discussion to Living Rent’s internal Slack platform found that their threads were deleted there by the national organiser, apparently with the backing of a majority of members of the new NC, which had not yet met. Members were effectively denied the right to discuss an issue which had effectively already become public and had significance for them. The matter is further complicated by the fact the union’s complaints procedure is relatively new and untested, with complaints being dealt with informally as late as 2020.

A week after the Facebook and Slack threads were censored, the new NC issued a statement which, after some welcome statements of outright opposition to transphobia and an explicit recognition of the diverse character of the Scottish working class, appeared to conflate members holding their own staff members to account with “harassment and bullying”. It said that NC members and staff had “taken decisions to delete certain social media posts with the aim of preventing both harm and harassment”, and put this aim on equal footing with members’ concerns about transphobia within the union. Without addressing the complaints against Durie directly, it said the union was processing complaints and that it would bring in “external HR support” as a matter of priority within the next two months. This risks introducing yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already opaque and unsatisfactory process.

The NC has promised to provide “space for members to discuss, at the local and national level, the issues that have arisen”, and there have been encouraging signs that such discussions have been and are being facilitated in local branches and groups. However, these appear to have been framed in vague terms around ‘tackling transphobia in the union’ without directly addressing the complaints against Durie, who continues to represent the union as a paid official. It is also unclear how, if at all, these local discussions will feed into national decisions. Remarkably, members’ ability to post in Living Rent’s main Slack channel remains “suspended”.

Both the AGM debates and the ongoing transphobia scandal are suggestive of a hierarchical internal culture in Living Rent where NC members and staff, whether intentionally or otherwise, manage and where necessary suppress debate in order to protect the administration of the union. This is not what a members-led democracy looks like; members should have an active role in decision-making, rather than a passive role mediated through elected officers and employees.

It is especially troubling that Durie was apparently present at a small in-person meeting of the Wyndford branch in early December which removed the incumbent secretary, Sam Sharp, for having criticised him in online discussions. A substantial statement published by Sharp early this year provides a valuable insight into the internal dynamics of the Wyndford branch, described as “a cluster of folk based around [Nick Durie’s] close associates”. It is perhaps noteworthy that Sharp’s removal was proposed by a strong supporter of the AGM motion on admitting homeowners – so strong that the member in question abruptly announced his resignation during the AGM when the debate appeared to turn against it, before quietly rescinding his resignation weeks later – and leaves the branch with no tenant committee members.

Building class power

For socialists, organisations like Living Rent have a significance beyond their role in delivering reforms like the introduction of rent controls or the construction of new social housing, as important as these are. By taking on landlords with the collective strength of tenants, Living Rent is building working class consciousness and power, without which there is no hope of transformative social and economic change of the type we imagine and fight for. At the minimum, it teaches tenant members the power of class solidarity. At a larger scale, we can look to Berlin, where a strong tenants’ movement last year delivered a referendum result in favour of expropriating the German capital’s biggest commercial landlords; if seen through, this will wrest at least some power from the capitalist class in favour of those who work for a living.

Living Rent has certainly punched above its weight since its establishment less than a decade ago, and is to thank for rent controls being forced onto the national political agenda (albeit on a slow and uncertain timetable). It has achieved more in its time than many organisations with greater numbers and resources, including long-established institutions of the left and the labour movement. This is precisely because of an organising model which is more or less grassroots and democratic. Opposing the prospective bureaucratisation or ‘NGO-ification’ of the union, wherein elected officers and paid organisers have exclusive political control and progressively relegate lay members to a more passive role as foot-soldiers to be directed from above, is to defend its record and make it a more powerful working class organisation.

Whether becoming a ‘community union’ would help Living Rent in this regard, as most of its staff members appear to believe, is unclear and would benefit from a longer, more considered debate. The case of Nick Durie, by comparison, is clear-cut. If members are not given the opportunity to remove him from his paid public role, Living Rent is not a democratic organisation. If he is allowed to continue while actively campaigning for the rolling-back of trans rights, the union’s base will likely narrow, excluding working class LGBT+ people who are already more likely to be in precarious housing – it will no longer be an organisation of the renting working class in all of its diversity. As Scotland continues to go through the political tumult of the constitutional stalemate and the Covid-19 crisis, whether Living Rent members reassert their rightful leadership of the union could prove more important than it seems.

20 thoughts on “Scotland’s Tenants’ Union at the Crossroads

  1. However democratic it might seem to you, having nick durie sacked for his beliefs would be illegal under the equalities act, and would open up living rent to being sued.

    1. Firing him for *having beliefs* might be illegal, firing him for how his beliefs have manifested, specifically his comments relating to trans people, is very unlikely to be.

      1. Despite a campaign to expose him, his comments were covered by the maya forstater decision. So not possible to sack him over them. Living rent exists within the law, and can’t break employment law.

    2. People join organizations like Living Rent exist because people don’t believe the state works to protect them and they need to organise among themselves in a democratic manner and if Nick Durie is malevolent enough to try and wreck a leftist tenant’s union – through the judiciary arm of the British state no less – because he’s too intransigent to keep his mouth shut and step down with dignity he’s no better than a Tory. Worse, in fact, because at least you can understand a Tory siding with the rentiers.

  2. For an organisation that contains home owners and renters that is radical, does direct action, and wins rent controls, I’d check out Nova Scotia ACORN. Lots of wins for tenants, but multi tenure and multi issue. Low income home owners don’t hold them back!

  3. This article certainly speaks for me. I’m a member of Living Rent (I was on the National Committee from 2021-2021, but decided not to stand for re-election) and of the Wyndford Tenants’ Union, though I’m on the verge of leaving the latter, because it is currently only a vanity project for Nick Durie and Ellenor Hutson.

    Sadly, Living Rent’s emphasis in dealing with bigots seems to be on “educating” such people out of such views. I think this is a dangerously flawed strategy. It assumes that everyone is equally well-intentioned, and that bigots simply need us to teach them how we’re right and how they should be more like us. We don’t extend this benefit of the doubt to landlords; rather than trying to educate them to stop exploiting their tenants, we seek to defeat them. Similarly, I have no interest in “discussion” with bigots — I want to defeat them. I want to stop them from causing harm. Dialogue with bigots is a luxury of the privileged, of those who are not actually being harmed by bigoted speech. To treat such people with “respect” is to treat the people they are harming with contempt.

    1. Greum, you came to one WTU meeting before resigning in a huff. I told you about how numerous women in LR had been targeted and abused online, along with photographs from the WTU page to identify them, and the distressed this had caused. You then threatened to post further details about members online. You have no interest in hearing from the multiple women who have been targeted. You and your pal Sam are happy for us to be collateral damage in your war against Nick Durie. We are people. We live here. We have a right to organise in our community.

      1. Laura, your comments are complete fiction. I’ve attended plenty of meetings in the last few years, before deciding to stop attending indoor events except when essential. I have never threatened to post personal details about anyone. I’m not interested in personalities, never mind your imagined “war against Nick Durie.” As you and I don’t know each other at all, I have no idea how you presume to know what I think (aside from what I’ve written for publication) or, even more bizarre, how I feel.

          1. First time I met you was the meeting before the one when we asked Sam to step down. You didn’t respond when I spoke to you so I had assumed at that point that you were only there to help get Nick fired. Here is the email exchange, after you had had the bullying and harassment of more than 8 members, half of whom were in our branch, detailed to you:

            From: Greum
            Sent: Wednesday, December 1, 2021 10:40 PM

            Subject: Re: [wtucommittee] Tonights commitee meeting

            I resign from the committee, effective immediately. Like Sam, I will remain a WTU member, at least for now.

            Sent: Wednesday, December 1, 2021 9:12 PM

            ps I will also be writing, and publishing, something about this.

            Greum

            On Wed, 1 Dec 2021, at 9:32 PM, Laura wrote:

            Greum,

            do not publish any more details about members that enable people to identify and target us.

            This is not what any of us joined for.

            I have already raised my fears about members becoming a target for violence with the branch (and with the police).

            Laura

            From: Greum
            Sent: Wednesday, December 1, 2021 10:37 PM

            Subject: Re: [wtucommittee] Tonights commitee meeting

            Laura, do not tell me what to do. What I write and publish will be accurate, of public interest, and therefore legal.

            Greum Maol Stevenson
            Further: in case it wasn’t clear, the reason I stated that I will be writing about this is so that everyone is aware that anything said or written to me in a WTU context I will consider to be on the record, and I will quote it if I want to, including your order not to.

            Greum Maol Stevenson

            On Wed, 1 Dec 2021, at 9:43 PM, Laura wrote:

            Yes, feel free to include my plea for you not to provide my personal details online.

            I am afraid of being attacked. You have decided to dismiss my concerns.

            If you read the abuse members were subjected to this week, and this is your take, feel free to publicise that fact.

            From: Greum
            Sent: Wednesday, December 1, 2021 10:44 PM

            Subject: Re: [wtucommittee] Tonights commitee meeting

            Thanks, but I don’t need your permission.

            Greum Maol Stevenson

            Laura sent:

            You have stated your position clearly. You do not care that members are now living in fear of violence and you intend to publish further information about members online.
            ***
            Another local woman who has been bullied out of LR was kind enough to reach out to you, at which point you sent me this:

            Laura,

            I’m writing this email directly to you, rather than the WTU list…

            Since our email exchange last night, I’ve learned that you’ve expressed that you’re in precarious mental health. Knowing that, I’ll leave your name out of the article I’m probably going to write about the committee’s dubious tactics in displacing Sam.

            That said, in future when I write about Living Rent, I will name any members who make bigoted statements in public.

            I hope this is of some relief to you, and I hope you feel better soon.

            Greum

            You do not get to dictate your neighbours’ beliefs, whether or not they are currently suffering from mental health issues, which thanks to your efforts, many are.

            You do not get to bully women out of an organisation they helped to build because they refuse to denounce people on demand.

  4. (posted on Living Rent Glasgow members page)
    I lodged a complaint against Nick Durie last summer when it was brought to my attention that he had been campaigning on The Wyndford Estate Maryhill for The Alba Party, including putting up stickers and posters on the scheme. This is the same scheme where Nick is a close neighbour of mine and where he is an organiser for Living Rent.
    I came out 7 years ago and was the first transgender woman on this scheme and i endured some terrible incidents including verbal abuse and threats on my life, these were recorded with the police. In those early years, i faced down discrimination and gained the respect of my community just by being myself. Today the party that Nick Durie campaigns for is viscerally hostile to transgender people, so much so that a climate of hate has begun to built up among less rational members of our society, this climate of increasing hostility has made the lives of all transgender and increasingly other LGBTQ people at risk.
    Despite following the procedures that are in place in the tenants union nothing has changed, this was brought home to me by the latest incident of hate on Living Rents website. i am a socialist and have supported all people all my life and i continue to support all members of our diverse community, strangely i never thought that i would be the recipient of blatant discrimination and phobic attitudes, especially from a person and an organisation that should by its very nature (and through my money) support all members.

  5. Great article, i had no idea about this and will not be supporting living rent until this is sorted out.

  6. What you have failed to acknowledge is that 8 people were targetted, all but two of whom were women. They had their names, photographs and details of where they lived posted online in a post that repeatedly called them ‘cunts’ and threatened that anyone who worked with them would be subject to smears and ostracisation. I was one of those women. I asked Brian to remove the post, which included a photo of me taken in front of my house, and he just called me a ‘cunt’. No one joins a tenants union expecting to be attacked in this way by other members. This is not activism. It is bullying. I live in the Wyndford. No one has a right to tell me that I cannot mobilise for my community.

    Some of these events are described in this podcast. They will be covered in more detail in our next one: https://www.podbean.com/user-b8b6G3H2jI7p

    1. Laura, again your comments are not based on anything that has actually been said or done.

      Where in the email exhange you posted did I threaten to reveal anyone’s personal details? I did say I would name people who had made public statements. This is the very opposite of personal. It is called reporting, and I suggest that anyone who does not want their views to be made public should not make public statements.

      I’m not aware of you having tried to speak to me at the one meeting we’ve both been at, but I’m deaf, and when I’m wearing a mask I don’t wear my hearing aids, so you may have and I didn’t hear. I wouldn’t ignore anyone who tried to speak to me.

      Where and how have I attempted to dictate anyone’s beliefs?

      Where and how have I attempted to bully a woman out of an organisation? Nick Durie, to be the best of my knowledge, is not a woman, and nor has he been bullied.

      I simply resigned from a committee whose behaviour I consider unethical, as did some others, which means the Wyndford Tenants’ Union committee is now made up entirely of homeowners, not tenants, which seems like something in a sitcom.

      Note that the email expressing sympathy for your mental health issues was sent only to you. You are the one who has made it public.

      1. Laura, it is also worth noting that the woman you say was “bullied out of LR” resigned from the WTU committee in response to the underhanded treatment of Sam Sharp by you and your accomplices, as did another woman.

        1. I am actually sitting with her right now and she says that is not why she told you she resigned. She left because of the stress of being doxxed and harassed online. She does not want to be involved because she is afraid of being targetted.

          She also suggested that you share the agenda or all the committee meetings you supposedly attended, they should show who was in attendance.

          My mental health issues are public knowledge now, whether I reveal them to people or not.

          For someone who prides themselves on their reporting skills, it surpises me that you have made no effort, despite having had every opportunity, to educate yourself about the harassment that women in LR have had to endure over the past two months. I am amazed that Sam did not mention the severe psychological distress that people were experiencing as a result of these attacks. He has failed to reach out to me since the day I struggled through a panic attack to ask him why he could not defend me against being viciously attacked, having my address posted, and being repeatedly called a ‘cunt’ online. He has made it clear that he believes that to be acceptable behaviour.

          Since people will continue to try to claim that these events never happened, I will be chronicaling them in detail in a podcast next week.

  7. Apart from joining Alba, what has Durie actually said or done that’s transphobic? Could you be really specific, because without quotes or instances you surely realise this whole thing reads like a smear?

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