Housing and politics go together like Cannon and Ball or Gavin and Stacey. Like it or not, you cannot take politics out of housing. To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not like politics, but politics likes you. Housing has been a political football since at least 1900 and even during the fragile political consensus of the post-war years you only have to read Hansard to realise that there were fierce political arguments about housing policy. That consensus ended, of course, on the 3rd May 1979 when ideology took over – home ownership good, social housing bad – and endured for 18 years. The last Labour government did some great things in housing, and John Healey was the best housing minister of the last twenty years by a country mile, but Labour failed to boost supply and to unpick the Right to Buy. Since last year’s election, ideology is back at full throttle, with home ownership now the only game in town. Regular readers of Inside Housing will know that this is doomed to fail.
So I make no apologies for the unashamed political content of this blog. I have been a member of the Labour Party since the early eighties. I resigned when Corbyn was elected leader but re-joined when Owen Smith made his challenge, not that I particularly like Smith but I would vote for a stuffed donkey rather than Corbyn (a stuffed donkey would do less damage to both the party and the country). In the early eighties John McDonnell was my boss’s boss in Camden and I saw Corbyn and his associates at close quarters during the London Labour Briefing era. In 32 years on the back-benches he has barely sat on any committee or pushed though a single piece of legislation to improve the lives of British people. In all that time he has run nothing more demanding than his office, and has also voted against his party more frequently than any other MP. He is a serial protestor, not a leader, and how anyone can view him as a potential Prime Minister is beyond me. Yet his “leadership” of the Labour Party now has all the hallmarks of a cult – unthinking adoration, frenzied rallies, outing dissenters as traitors, suppression of dissent and free speech, a narrowing of views. Some of his domestic policies, on housing in particular, are certainly attractive, but his foreign policy positions are untenable. Corbyn has the looks and charisma of a college lecturer from the eighties, and his policies seem embedded in that decade, (see #UB4Corbyn, I rest my case). His performance at PMQs has been a plodding disaster; unable to think on his feet he has been torn apart by Cameron and May. The polls are disastrous. He is unelectable and the Labour Party is in a mess.
“How anyone can view him as a potential prime minister is beyond me.”
Well, with that rant out of the way, what are the prospects for housing once Corbyn is re-elected on the 24th September? Poor, obviously. The battle for the party will continue – the level of bile between party members on Twitter has been unebelievably vitriolic – but, short of a miracle, there is little doubt that the Conservatives will be re-elected in 2020 if not before, and probably again in 2025. Fundamentally, the Labour Party with its new cut-price membership, is out of step with the rest of the country. The notion that you can win over 90 seats in middle England, mostly Tory-held seats, by shifting to the left seems daft at best.
So that means probably 14 years of Conservative rule – enough time to dismantle social housing in its entirety, if they want to. If the assault on our sector continues where will the opposition come from? With Labour in disarray, the Housing and Planning Act faced minimal opposition from Labour MPs in the Commons, and although the Lords put up a more spirited resistance they were still crushed. Ideology won again.
In my view, the only hope is in the centre. With post-referendum UKIP a spent force, and Labour shifting leftwards, a huge hole has opened up in the centre ground of English politics. That is where we need to be, and if the Conservtaives had any sense they would move to occupy it. The only way forward in the short and medium term is to appeal to the “progressive” wing of the Conservative Party – the party of Harold Macmillan and Iain Macleod. Theresa May has promised a country that works for everyone and there are signs that the new leadership could be more open to new ideas than the Cameron-Osborne junta. There are many voices in the Conservatve Party who recognise that the old housing policies have failed. The Conservative think tank Renewal has called for a radical rethink, in its Homes for All paper, including state funding of 75,000 living rent homes each year with a rent to buy option.
The Tory Reform Group is also calling for evidence as part of a major overhaul of policy. Their deputy Chair says, “..one of the biggest challenges of our generation is a housing crisis that risks leaving too many people without a decent, affordable home. Without action that will be the political legacy for generations to come. We need to be creative and think the unthinkable in search for meaningful solutions.”
That sounds positive to me and the SHOUT campagn will certainly be making a submission, and I urge you to also. Given the collapse of the Labour Party everyone in housing should be following with close interest the debate on housing and other social policy issues within the Conservative Party. You should also be making friends with your local conservative councillors and MPs to make the case for invesment in social housing. It could be our only hope.