What matters to an illusionist is how something is perceived, rather than how it actually is. Owen Jones, writing last month, was describing what he called the government’s ‘political sorcery’. He only briefly touched on housing policy. He pointed out that the prime feature of the government’s renegotiation of our EU membership – depriving recent EU migrants of in-work benefits, including their access to housing benefit and social housing – is based on the perception that millions of them are playing the system. But the truth, shown in the chart on tax credit claims from NIESR, is that relatively small numbers claim in-work (as opposed to out-of-work) benefits. In other words, it plays to people’s prejudices about migrants but has little or nothing to do with real problems.
Jones catalogues other issues which the government has successfully portrayed to their advantage in the same ways – the deficit, its cause, the compelling need to scale back the state. All these are examples of illusionary politics. As he notes, politics is now about sentiments and emotions, even more than about concrete problems. Sentiments are fed not by facts but by emotionally compelling stories of abuses of the system which in the public mind become a general picture of what’s wrong with state benefits and public services.
The same sorcery applies in housing. Council housing is ‘taxpayer-subsidised’, its lucky occupants enjoy ‘lifetime tenancies’, ‘local’ people can’t get houses when they are relet and many occupants are abusing the system by enjoying low rents while they are on ‘higher incomes’. Red Brick has consistently debunked these myths, most recently in Steve’s latest piece and in my July post, but it doesn’t stop the government from perpetuating them. While council housing is beyond the pale, housing associations also came under unjustified attacks designed to secure their acceptance of right to buy (since when the attacks have ended). There are always one or two examples to back up any of these smears, enabling any refutation to be easily dismissed. In any case people have already absorbed the message from the media headlines and pay little attention to any evidence which contradicts it.
As Owen says, this because few voters are political geeks interested in policy details or whether one policy contradicts another. So, for example, the Localism Act promised to give local homes to local people by allowing councils to impose stiff residency tests (cutting London waiting lists by one-third in just two years). But just as prospective tenants thought they might be able to move in next to their in-laws, the government now plans to insist on compulsory sales of high-value council houses that might mean no new lettings at all on the most popular estates (and private landlords buying vacant homes to let to higher-paid tenants who of course aren’t even on the waiting list). Has the clear policy contradiction ever been mentioned by mainstream media?
The biggest illusion of all is surely that the government plans to address the housing shortage. We are the builders, says George Osborne, introducing a Spending Review and a Housing Bill that instead will push up house prices and offer further subsidies and favourable rule changes to developers, who will probably respond by raising output slightly but above all will ensure that their already high profits soar even higher. He constantly draws attention away from his own policy failures: official statistics show private builders completed 125,000 homes per year on average under Labour governments from 1997-2010, while since then they have managed an average 90,000 per year. In Labour’s best two years for private building, 2006-2007, more private homes were built than in three years under the coalition, 2011-2013. Who are the real builders, then?
There will be one million more home owners said the DCLG after the Autumn Statement, while the numbers buying a home with a mortgage have fallen by half a million since 2010. Both before and after the election the government has put the new right to buy for housing association tenants on a policy pedestal, just as critics have pointed out that only small numbers will benefit, at huge cost per household in subsidy. The government now admits it will have to phase in the scheme to avoid an additional burden on public spending, meaning that only a few hundred tenants are likely to benefit in the first year. But what matters is the illusion, not the detail.
There are so many examples of illusionary housing policies that it would be difficult to make a complete list of the government’s doublespeak. Social housing rents are being cut to help those on low incomes, whereas the IFS showed that the main beneficiary is the Treasury. Councils are being empowered to build more homes whereas their capacity is actually being reduced. Housing investment will provide ‘the largest housing programme by government since the 1970s’ even though it won’t get anywhere near doing so. In any case, most of the increase will arrive after the end of this government’s fixed term of office. ‘Increased central funding’ for tackling homelessness ignores the fact that local government will, according to the IFS, have taken an overall 79% cut in its revenue budgets by 2019/20 compared with 2010/11. Government meets its self-imposed ‘welfare cap’ by the same date, but only because the costs of temporary accommodation for homeless households are to be shifted out of the welfare budget and onto local councils. In February, landlords across England will have to start making immigration checks to stop ‘illegal’ migrants from getting new lettings, even though there is little evidence that they are or that the checks will be a deterrent to undocumented migration.
With only a few notable recent exceptions like tax credits, evidence that proves government policy is an illusion is ignored by the media. Even the campaign to maintain tax credits was successfully exploited by Osborne, who stopped the tax credit cuts only to retain them for universal credit applicants, with the same long-term effects. The media (and the Opposition) allowed him to get away with this blatant sleight of hand.
The point is that Cameron/Osborne are carrying out illusionary politics on a grand scale. While Gordon Brown as Chancellor might have set out headline policies for the tabloids while quietly getting on with real policy changes such as bringing council housing up to the Decent Homes Standard, Osborne runs the whole gamut of illusion from macro-economic policy down to the fine detail of ending ‘lifetime’ tenancies, introducing ‘pay to stay’ and ‘cutting’ rents. Nothing escapes his sorcerer’s eye.
Owen Jones argues that Labour urgently needs to address this new way of making and presenting policy, not by copying it but by devising its own effective counter-strategy. It needs to find much better ways to appeal to people’s emotions. In the same way as the Tories have successfully dangled the false hope of getting on the property ladder, Labour needs a coherent housing message that (Jones says) ‘can easily be turned into a pub conversation’. A starting point could be the aspirations of millions of younger households who’ve again be promised home ownership but by 2020 will still be tenants, paying high rents and still unable to save for a deposit. A distinctive set of policies is needed, with a convincing explanation of how they will be funded and carried out, framed so that real households can visualise how they personally (or their sons and daughters) might benefit. This might just do the trick after another five years of Tory illusions.