They’re all the same. Oh no they’re not.

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.

faragecameron obama

johnson eating

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7 Responses to They’re all the same. Oh no they’re not.

  1. Pingback: The hypocrisy of Mr Clegg | Red Brick

  2. It seems there is agreement that Labour’s policy is not strong enough, and we can argue the merits of particular policies. But I think Labour’s commitment to 200k new homes and a package of intervention in the PRS is miles better than the current Government and represents progress in the right direction. It’s down to the rest of us to make the case for more, the housing industry bears a lot of responsibility for not shouting loud enough. The LibDem party housing policy is excellent, unfortunately they have implemented the Tory policy faithfully in office, so they are not to be trusted. UKIP are Tories with knobs on. I have a lot of sympathy with people who want to vote Green but, whether they like it or not, the choice for PM is between Ed Miliband and David Cameron: a Green vote would make it more likely that Cameron would win. You only have to look at what Tories and their think tanks are saying about housing to know that that would be a very bad thing.

  3. paul calland says:

    Labour does need to be more radical in housing policy, but I agree with Steve that there is a huge difference between Ed and Cameron/Osborne/IDS. There is no doubt the Tory agenda is to end social housing and if they were to get in next time, there will be none left by 2020 (not helped by those in the sector that actually want this…under the euphemism of “rent/tenure flexibilities”). We should all be very afraid of the consequences of this.

    What is also patently clear is that the raft of policies we have seen from the Tories over the last 4 years (abetted by the Lib Dems amazingly) were NEVER in their manifesto, nor in any promises made. So there is nothing to stop Labour from being more radical after it won…(if it did ) in the same way.

    I suspect the inclination of the current shadow cabinet is not so minded to do that sadly….as radical action is needed to begin to address a decline that began more than thirty years ago. On Steve’s point about a shift back from subsidy to people (HB) to subsidy into bricks and mortar (very much the right thing to do) an early quick fix would be to end the tax relief on rental income for private landlords at a stroke producing £5 billion pa….technical stuff in a budget…just the type of steps the coalition took to bring in their own radical dismantling of the state.

  4. Mike Marriott says:

    Hi Steve
    Nice blog but…..
    You are wasting your time with Labour which stills looks BLAIRITE to me mate.
    Join the GREENS for a modern approach to the world….

  5. Terry Kendellen says:

    Steve, WOW! I would like to forward this to my own group. Can it be on F/B so that it can be shared also? Hope all goes well. We (Carole and I) will be in London just before Christmas, 18th-22Dec and then back 30th-31st. May have time for a pint if you are there too… Best wishes and look us up: Commequiers, 85220 Vendée. Terry

    Date: Sun, 16 Nov 2014 09:12:11 +0000 To:

  6. runner500 says:

    Sadly, I think that Alex is right both when his Labour List piece was written in 2012 and now. I work in housing but am really struggling to see what difference Labour will make as it seems far too afraid to rock the boat but I guess that’s the strategy. There seems little understanding of the underlying problems in relation to housing and consequently little vision to attempt to ‘sell’ to the electorate. But it isn’t just housing. You are probably right about not rocking the boat at this stage in the electoral cycle, it is far too late for any change of direction and getting rid of the Tories would be a little better but it isn’t a ringing endorsement of where we are.

  7. Alex Hilton says:

    Steve, I really appreciate the considered tone in this piece. I really couldn’t ask to be criticised in a more intelligent and courteous way.

    What I want next May is a government that does right by renters. At the moment, of the recognisable parties only the Greens have a housing policy that would meet that test and Labour’s doing everything it can to unseat their only MP. Unlike Rochester (Labour until 2010) where they have conceded to UKIP and the Conservatives who don’t have useful housing policies.

    My calculation is that if Labour thinks renters will vote for them out of fear of a Conservative government then they don’t have to offer us a single thing more. And what they’re offering isn’t enough.

    1. Three year tenancies with a 6-month, no fault break clause and capped rent increases.

    Sounds good but the reality is that if the only way landlords can put up the rent is to evict at six months, then that is what they will do. Furthermore, if you have a right (but not an obligation) to a three year tenancy, then the target revenue will be priced in to the starting rent so the cap won’t limit revenue, meaning anyone who doesn’t want to live somewhere for three years gets this uplift priced in anyway. Labour’s proposal is more likely to make rents go up and tenancies less secure.

    2. Ban letting agent fees. Unambiguously good but peripheral, particularly as Labour policy does still allow a charge for reference checking. But we’ll definitely need this if they create a system where we’ll all be evicted every six months.

    3. Supply. Labour’s supply policy is to wilfully build not enough new homes and in doing so prop up the wealth of home and land owners at the expense of renters’ cost of living and taxpayers £10bn a year bung to private landlords in housing benefit. Lyons said there’s an annual increase in housing demand of 243,000 new homes plus a current backlog of demand for a million new homes. To have a target of 200,000 new homes is to tell renters to expect to be exploited for the rest of their lives. It’s an insult.

    My message is not that people shouldn’t vote Labour. My message is that renters should actively and tactically vote against any party that is happy for them to be exploited for the rest of their lives.

    My hope is that if this message gets out, one or more parties might take another look and come up with a better offer for renters. If that’s Labour I’ll vote for them, but they’re not getting my endorsement on a ballot paper if this is the best they have got.

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