Raise the dented shield

Labour did stunningly well all over the country and we have many new Labour Councils who I hope will promote a strong housing agenda: more genuinely affordable homes, regulation of the private sector, searching out a humane response to dealing with the ending of the homelessness safety net and the cuts to housing benefit.

Labour Councils will face huge difficulties with little money and a Government which is following rigidly a high rent, no rights housing policy in the desperate hope that the market will respond.  They will have to make appallingly hard choices but, as Neil Kinnock once said, better a dented shield than no shield at all.

The tragedy of London is that it is a Labour city but the Tories walked away with the spoils: the mayor holds all the housing powers and what little money is left.  It bodes ill for Londoners: there will be no shield at all for them.  Housing output will be nowhere near affordable, the proportion of earnings spent on housing will continue to rise, and the private rented sector will continue as the last unreformed and unmodernised great industry.

Andy Slaughter was spot on with his analysis of the real Tory agenda: few if any planning consents for new social rented housing; demolition without affordable replacement of social housing estates in valuable places; selling council properties without like-for-like replacement; and insecure and unaffordable new tenancies becoming commonplace in the social as well as the private rented sector.

Personally I’d rather have H’Angus the monkey as mayor than Boris Johnson.  At least H’Angus campaigned on the policy of giving children free bananas when he won Hartelepool.

We will all have our theories as to why Ken Livingstone lost against such a benign political background.  They say familiarity breeds contempt and there might be a bit of that after 40 years of seeing Ken on the London stage.  There is no doubt that Boris Johnson the personality is a phenomenon unmatched in British politics (even if he makes my skin creep).  His next target is Cameron and I’ll enjoy watching that battle unfold.  But Johnson could have been beaten.

I certainly don’t agree with Peter Kellner and Tony Travers on the BBC (why don’t they have to declare their financial interests before commenting?) that it has nothing to do with the media.  The personal vilification of Livingstone, the anti-Ken propaganda handed out to Londoners every day (called the Evening Standard), the supine broadcast media who just follow the papers wherever they go, and the overwhelmingly negative Johnson campaign, all had their impact.  The media bias sets agendas: Ken’s tax affairs became a huge and genuinely damaging issue (unfairly in my view) whilst Johnson’s extensive contacts with the Murdochs hardly got a mention.  Although at its peak it was excellent, the London Labour campaign machine seemed to take ages to get organised, with several changes of personnel.  Add the damage done by the ‘hold your nose and vote Ken’ brigade, a few genuine backstabbers (Sugar, Clarke and Labour Uncut come to mind), and the result is the narrowest of defeats.  If I can campaign for James Callaghan in 1979 and Tony Blair in 2005 these people can campaign for Ken Livingstone in 2012.  It’s called political discipline and it means, whatever you do, you don’t let the Tories in because they really hurt people.  Ken could have done better but we all could have done better, and we should have won.  Let the lessons be learned.

The one thing that cannot be disputed is Ken’s housing record.  I got annoyed by the Shelter and NHF line that the candidates weren’t talking about housing.  Ken was, from the off and every time he got to his feet.  Almost his first policy statement was about the private rented sector, the lettings agency and the London Living Rent – it was unexpected, innovative, and deserved much more coverage.

For 40 years, from Lambeth to Camden, from the GLC to the GLA, Ken has promoted housebuilding and genuinely affordable housing for Londoners.  He has never been embarrassed to talk about Council housing.  Given no housing powers and no money in 2000 when first elected mayor, Ken transformed housing prospects in London in an extraordinarily creative way, leaving in 2008 with a clear housing strategy for the capital and the biggest affordable housing programme in its history.  It was a strategy for all: he invented the whole business of intermediate housing as a planning tool to help people in the middle as well.  The achievement is nothing short of phenomenal.

This may be Ken’s last election campaign but I doubt if it is his last campaign.  If he and Boris are both one of a kind, give me Ken’s kind every time.

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