With poor timing I suspect I’m about to get on the wrong side of history with this post, coming just a few days before the Leadership ballot result. But here goes anyway.
I’m in Labour because I believe that the Party in Government (national and local) has brought about nearly all the major social and economic advances in this country in the past seventy years. Of course I accept that there have been terrible disappointments and failures. I am also an unapologetic supporter of vigorous extra-parliamentary campaigning. However, I am unshakeable in my belief that the most important thing Labour does is win elections.
My conclusion that Owen Smith stands a better chance of winning a general election than Jeremy Corbyn has dictated my vote in the Leadership election. However I feel alone in not being very tribal about it – I think both candidates have abundant but different qualities – and abhore the attacks that have been made by both sides which have so diminished the standing of the Party as a whole.
The purpose of this post is to comment on an example of why elections matter so much. For the first time in a long time, this week I whooped in delight at a political announcement. It came from the Mayor of London. Generally speaking, the words ‘Boris Johnson’ and ‘Sadiq Khan’ should be enough in themselves to prove that winning an election changes things. But my example is something that most people won’t have heard of and many others will think is of little consequence. It concerns the seemingly obscure policy of ‘converting’ rents for social rented homes when they become empty to so-called ‘affordable rents’.
I have railed on Red Brick, sometimes in an almost incoherent rage, against the travesty of rents that are blatantly unaffordable being termed ‘affordable rents’. They are defined as rents that are up to 80% of market rents, compared to social rents which are historically nearer to 40% of market rents. As the Government and Boris Johnson moved to kill off social rented housing, mayoral grants for building new homes were restricted to supporting ’affordable rent’ homes only. The PR trick was to keep talking about the output of ‘affordable’ homes as if there was some great achievement going on. Last year, the new ‘real Tory’ Government went one step further and removed support for even these scandalously high rents by putting all the money into home ownership instead.
Back in 2013, because government grant had been cut to the bone, the then Housing Minister Mark Prisk and Mayor Johnson hit on the idea of getting tenants to put in far more money. As I commented at the time on Red Brick, rent is the new grant.
To get hold of some grant, housing providers (mainly housing associations) were required to sign up to selling some of their existing properties (it was called ‘asset management’) and ‘converting’ some of their homes from lower social rents to the much higher ‘affordable rents’ when they became available for letting. Some associations resisted, but others revelled in their freedom, volunteering to convert many or most of their homes when they became vacant.
By 2015 a total of 19,000 homes had been approved for rent conversion in London, making a huge (and largely unnoticed) contribution to the accelerating loss of social rented homes. On the basis of Freedom of Information requests that I submitted, it became clear that as many as 82,000 social rent properties might be affected nationally, a huge share of the ‘void’ properties that come available for letting.
In London, Khan has confirmed that the policy pushed rents up by as much as £5,500 a year, putting homes that were built with your money and mine to be genuinely affordable well out of the reach of people on typical London incomes. In a totally counter-productive way, the policy also pushed up the housing benefit bill. In my view the associations who embraced the policy betrayed their roots, their mission and their communities. (I forgive those who did it reluctantly but at least complained publicly about it).
Now, because he is in power, Sadiq has said he will end this practice. “He will work with housing associations to ensure it is not necessary to fund new affordable homes by raising rents on social rented properties.” As a result, many more homes available for reletting will be let at social rents which are within the reach of ordinary families. Sadly, I presume the policy in the rest of the country will continue, and if Zac Goldsmith had won it would still apply in London.
Whoever wins on Saturday, this example illustrates for me the vital importance of keeping the political focus in the Labour Party on winning elections – because, as Sadiq shows, Labour administrations actually change people’s lives.