It was a good week for housing at the Labour Party Conference.
There were new commitments on housebuilding, a breakthrough reference to a more assertive land and new settlements policy, and the important – and symbolically vital – promise to repeal the bedroom tax. Hilary Benn and Jack Dromey, and even Liam Byrne, said lots of other interesting things in their more detailed speeches in conference and on the fringe. Jack always says that housing has moved ‘centre stage’ in Labour policy and this time it felt like it might be true.
Labour has been under heavy pressure to make more policy pronouncements but mainly from people who don’t listen to Jack Dromey’s speeches, where the direction of policy has been clear for some time. In terms of formal announcements the Party is right to take its time, to develop policy carefully and to get things right. Ed Miliband’s appointment of Sir Michael Lyons to lead a Commission on achieving more housebuilding is a good sign that the Party intends to do the work necessary to get it right. In fact I can’t remember a time when such a huge amount of detailed work has been going on in the background. Dromey’s incessant discussions with councils, housing associations, finance houses and an array of experts is not the stuff of grand announcements but a clear indication of his very comprehensive approach to housing policy.
Dromey already looks and talks more like a Housing Minister than Mark Prisk ever will. He is thinking things through. I particularly liked his comments to Inside Housing at Conference that Labour’s main emphasis will be on homes for social rent. ‘We want to build homes of all tenure but a new generation of social homes in particular.’ He said the coalition government’s affordable rent model, under which social landlords can charge up to 80 per cent of market rents ‘has had its day’ and is not affordable.
The dangers of doing as the commentariat wanted and making earlier than necessary policy announcements were well illustrated by the hysterical reaction to Miliband’s speech. Although the housebuilding industry didn’t squeal to the same degree as the energy companies, their friends in the media did it for them. ‘Miliband’s ‘Stalinist’ plan to seize land for homes and build on fields’, said the Telegraph. And so Red Ed was reborn and there were plenty more references to Stalin and Castro. Andrew Neil introduced his This Week programme by asking ‘has Ed gone crazy?’ Michael Portillo rather gruffly accused him of being ‘populist’. And LibDem Miranda Green said it all looked ‘very socialist’ to her. Really? Some commentators reported without a touch of sarcasm that the Tories were saying that Miliband was lurching to the left but they would be staying in the centre. The centre must have shifted a very long way for that to be true.
Personally I think the policies were all rather sensible and moderate. A freeze on energy prices after a period of greedy profit-taking, a commitment to build some houses, and getting rid of a punitive tax that even the Tories must be regretting, are all great policies but they hardly add up to the socialist dawn. The argument for building on greenfield as well as brownfield land cuts across the political spectrum, take Planning Minister Nick Boles as an example of this diversity.
For me, the most left-wing speech of the week came from a surprising source: Andy Burnham on health, committing to repeal the Tories’ health privatisation policies and making a strong pitch for the virtues of direct public sector provision and the return of the public sector ethos.
Far from being overtly socialist, many of the policy announcements build on Ed’s previous theme of confronting ‘predatory capitalism’. It took on a new guise in the shape of tackling ‘failed markets’. This is a welcome shift away from New Labour, which often seemed in thrall to markets as if they were the untouchable natural order. All too often the word ‘free’ appears before the word ‘market’, and the pretence begins that state interference causes distortions to something that will be optimal if it is just left to itself.
The real reason for the ‘reds under the beds’ scare stories is that Miliband’s increasingly searching questioning of the nature of markets in modern society threatens the interests of the rich and the big corporations. What should be done when markets are manipulated to meet the greedy ambitions of a few players rather than society as a whole? And what should the state do when markets patently fail? The banking market failed, and devastated the rest of the economy. The energy market has failed to deliver for customers rather than shareholders. Both the housing market and the housebuilding markets have failed. Strong intervention is needed in all these cases. But far from being socialist, these interventions are more to do with saving capitalism from itself.
I am increasingly convinced that Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister. But he is not Red Ed. He is Steady Teddy.