In an important interview Ed Miliband yesterday spelled out the contents of Labour’s first Queen’s Speech. Speaking to the Guardian he tried to refocus the Election back on to policy and away from the appalling England v Scotland tactics we have seen from the Tories recently.
He described the central battle of the Election to be ‘a clash of values’. How right he is. On this blog over the last five years we have commented constantly on the policies of the Coalition Government. We have stressed that many of the core Tory housing policies were contained not in their Manifesto but in a pamphlet written for the Localis Think Tank before the Election, which set out their approach to the marketisation of social housing. We have monitored their policies from the first Budget cut of over 60% in the affordable housing budget, through the introduction of endless and self-defeating demand subsidies for home ownership, through the stream of policies designed to end social rented housing, through their ripping up of the homelessness safety net, through their indolence over private renting, to their unbelievable decision to give subsidies of more than £100,000 to make the right to buy work for housing association tenants – to be funded by selling off every valuable council house that becomes available for letting in places like Westminster.
And the Lib Dems? Despite their well-written and comprehensive housing Manifesto – much of it repeated again this time – Lib Dem Ministers in DCLG have been poor and uninfluential and have gone along with every single rabid policy put forward by Grant Shapps, Michael Green, and their successors. They have been absolutely hopeless and have offered no mitigation whatsoever.
Miliband’s proposed Queen’s Speech identified 10 Bills that would be introduced in the next session that will be the policy of the Government in less than one month’s time.
To focus on the issues that will have an impact on housing: The Bills will include a finance bill that would introduce the mansion tax; a freeze on energy prices until 2017 with powers to reduce charges; bills to tackle low pay by banning zero-hours contracts, make it illegal to use agency workers and immigrant labour to undercut wages; an NHS time to care bill that will end the market framework and begin the integration of the health and social care services; a bill to close tax loopholes, including those around stamp duty.
And finally, there would be what is described as a ‘More Homes and Fair Rents Bill’, which is:
A bill that would give councils new “use it or lose it” powers to stop developers sitting on land; create local development corporations to build homes at scale where the private sector has failed to; and allow the development of garden cities and suburbs, creating more than half a million new homes. It would also ban extortionate letting agents’ fees and make caps on three-year tenancies at inflation rates the rule, not the exception.
On top of that, in the one policy that alone justifies a Labour vote, Ed Miliband has not only pledged to end the Tory and LibDem Bedroom Tax which he described as ‘indefensible’ and ‘cruel’, he has promised to act immediately:
‘We’ll get to work immediately to ensure that families no longer lose out. So on day one of a Labour government, we free families from the burden of the bedroom tax.’
Of course I concur with many colleagues in the Labour Party who would like to see an even stronger housing policy. In particular, I would like to see a much more explicit commitment to social rented housing and to the increased affordable housing programme that is essential to providing a large slice of the promised 200,000 new homes a year in the form of genuinely affordable homes. We will have to wait and see what the Eds’ promise that housing will have ‘highest priority’ in Government capital spending amounts to in pounds shillings and pence.
However I am reassured by the fact that Ed Miliband went big on housing for 2-3 days last week, making housing his ‘Sixth Pledge’, suggesting it is a genuine priority for him, and by the less well-reported comments of Emma Reynolds on the need to link rents to earnings rather than market rates – in my view the foundation of a progressive policy that could deliver a new generation of genuinely affordable homes and begin the long march back ‘from benefits to bricks’.
And I thought the Miliband responses to Inside Housing‘s questions were also encouraging, including his comments on reviewing one for one replacement of right to buy homes, his understanding of the reversal of progres on homelessness, and his statement that:
Labour is committed to building more affordable homes in the next Parliament, including homes for social rent, and that’s why capital investment for housing will be a top priority.
‘Red Brick comes out for Labour’ is not a headline that is going to cause ripples in the Election campaign. ‘The Guardian comes out for Labour’ is slightly more important, and a welcome reversal of the appalling decision they made to back the LibDems in 2010. The poor misguided souls have seen some light, and I will be able to start buying the rag again.
If it wasn’t for the extraordinary happenings in Scotland, too complex to go into here and now, the whole debate at this moment would be around the size of Ed Miliband’s majority. There would be no talk of being neck and neck. On some polls Labour is ahead in England and Wales, not something that the Tory backwoodsmen shouting about ‘English votes for English laws’ will understand. Apart from Scotland, Labour’s comeback is a much bigger achievement than the Party is given credit for. In my patch, London, Labour’s lead is stunning.
Miliband’s success has involved swimming against the tide. Almost universal media hostility (including for a long time from the Guardian) makes it so hard to get any reasonable point across. Housing policy is reduced to the glow of housing wealth, first time buyers and housing benefit scroungers. Journalism in the broadcast media is shockingly poor so they re-run whatever is in the right wing press, and even devote whole programmes to showing us what is in the papers – 75% owned by a few right wing billionaires.
So will Friday morning bring that awful feeling that we experienced in 1992, when people switched to the Tories in the last week, or can Miliband hold and even improve on his position? If he wins, in my view the feeling will be even better than 1997.