There are many of us in the Labour Party who would like the Party to adopt a more vigorous and less timid housing policy. Everyone I meet in the Party agrees that housing should be a key priority for an incoming Labour Government. There is an acute awareness that there is a severe housing crisis, which has developed over a generation and may take a generation of commitment to fix.
There is in my view a strong consensus amongst members on the direction that policy should go in: we should build many more social rented homes, make a big switch in policy ‘from benefits to bricks’, intervene far more in the private rented sector, curtail ‘buy to let’ and ‘right to buy’, and assist first time buyers by boosting supply rather than adding to demand. And that’s just for starters.
There is little doubt that Labour’s housing offer could be a lot stronger. But there is a world of difference between wanting Labour to adopt stronger policies and taking the view that there is ‘no difference’ between Labour and the Tories or between Miliband and Cameron. That was the issue in a recent Twitter exchange between myself and Alex Hilton, a former parliamentary candidate who has lost faith in the Party.
Even if Ed Miliband had no housing policies at all I would still prefer him to Cameron, whose approach to housing makes Thatcher look like a bleeding heart liberal. The Tories’ policies have been chronicled in these pages many times and don’t need repeating in detail. But their performance on housing supply has been pitiful, their cut of 60% in housing grant was vicious, their agenda is to end social rented housing, and they refuse almost every demand for intervention in the ‘free market’ of the private rented sector, apart from to pile in more support for ‘buy to let’. Their benefits policy is creating an ever bigger gap between incomes and rents for tenants in all tenures, in and out of work. Bedroom Tax has come to symbolize their ideology – attacking the poor, punitive, and uncaring about the consequences. I think many people will vote Labour even if its only housing policy is to abolish the Bedroom Tax.
Labour’s policies have also been recorded on Red Brick as they have emerged. Largely they have been welcomed for their general direction, but often with a wish that they could have gone further or been stronger – the Lyons report being the most recent example. Committing to 200,000 new homes a year is a crucial step: as Labour gets into Government, it will find that it needs more ‘policy’ to achieve the target, but the pressure will be in the right direction and they will pull out the stops to achieve this headline target. In relation to private tenants, Alex’s greatest beef, Jack Dromey spent most of his tenure of the shadow housing job talking seriously with people in the sector and developing a sensible and comprehensive plan: longer tenancies, more predictable rents, controls on agents’ fees, stronger controls on revenge eviction, licensing of landlords, stronger enforcement of standards, dealing with rogue landlords. I think many private tenants will welcome this package and Labour should campaign vigorously on it. Of course it’s not a policy that abolishes capitalism, it does not control the market and it does not bring rents down – only a much faster rate of housebuilding sustained over a very long period can do that.
One of Alex’s refrains is that Labour will do nothing to take the heat out of house price inflation and bring about house price deflation – the mechanism that will supposedly lead quickly to falling rents and the end of profiteering. He thinks this is because Labour does not wish to upset ‘Daily Mail reading swing voters in marginal seats’. However, one of the few things that Red Brick ever agreed with Grant Shapps about was when he made a thoughtful speech on the need for long term price stability, a gradual adjustment of house values against incomes (a speech since forgotten by the rest of the Tories). In my view this is exactly what Labour should be aiming for, as an objective of monetary policy as much as housing policy. It cannot be done quickly: far from solving the problems of private renters, a rapid fall in house prices would create chaos for even more people, as we saw on previous occasions when bubbles burst.
In his original rather personal attack on Miliband, Alex argued that ‘Austerity may be a necessity but our party, with our values, ought to be standing up for people.’ In my view that is pretty much the place that Milband (and Balls) are coming from. Alex has more in common with them than with me, because I do not accept the necessity of austerity and certainly not in the form that makes the poor and people on ordinary incomes pay the price for the collapse of the bankers’ casino. Rather than attacking people personally, we should spend our time making the strong case for housing and infrastructure-led growth creating real jobs and boosting tax receipts. The housing world should accept much of the blame for failing to make the case. It’s not just politicians.
But that is by-the-by. Alex has fallen into a bigger trap. We are now going through the most sustained attempt to undermine a Leader since the red smears against Harold Wilson. Jumping on the bandwagon is very damaging for the progressive cause. It is not an internal coup but the right-wing press taking revenge on Miliband for his stance on press behaviour – a stance the whole party strongly supported – by exploiting the anonymous words of a few permanent malcontents and endlessly repeating pictures of him eating a bacon sandwich. They hope to cause conflict, sap morale and feed disillusionment within the party. It is a time for anyone vaguely on the left to pull together to get rid of the Tories, and the only way to do that is to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. My belief is that he is a principled man who will lead a good Labour Government which will achieve real improvements for ordinary people.
And even if you don’t believe that, if the only thing that voting Labour achieves is to wipe the smugness off the faces of Cameron Osborne and Duncan Smith, it will be all worthwhile.
And here are some pics that haven’t been repeated in the media day after day.