Whenever I’ve met John McTernan, which isn’t often, I’ve found him to be a clever and even charming man. It therefore amuses me to see him make his mark as one of a number of Labour right wing pantomime villains invited onto TV shows to argue with the pantomime villains of the left. The parody of political argument that then takes place only makes sense in a Labour Perty which has been so simplistically divided between ‘Trots’ on the one hand and ‘Red Tories’ on the other.
Of course it suits the media to set up these ‘debates’ which mainly involve the trading of the well-crafted insults and stereotypes that make up the relevant ‘narrative’. Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith are both exceptional people in their own way, and both deserve better than this. It is like mass hysteria: people I have known and respected for many years have been caught up in it all, tweeting the most incredible rubbish about one or other of the candidates. For the vast majority of Labour members like me who exist somewhere in the very large space between Momentum and Progress, despair is the most common emotion the campaign has provoked. I will vote for Owen because I think he is more likely to win an election – for me, the most important criterion – but I am happy to defend Jeremy from the more banal attacks on him.
But I digress from my main purpose. What got my interest was that John has pronounced on the issue of housing in his Financial Times column, ‘A failure of imagination blights Britain’s housing policy‘ and I wanted to take him to task on a couple of points. (NB you can sign up for some free FT articles despite the paywall).
First, where he is right: if Theresa May listened to the public, she would focus her attention on housing. Sadly, many in her Party have concluded that housing is an immigration problem, and then come to wrong conclusions (like leaving the EU). Undoubtedly the Blair Governments encouraged immigration to promote growth and to create what they liked to call a ‘flexible’ labour market, and their failure was that they did not properly consider the policies that were needed to minimise the possibility of social tensions, and in particular housing supply. John is also right about housing becoming an insider/outsider issue: those owning homes like having ever more valuable assets even if it means that the next generation are excluded altogether.
Where John goes wrong starts with the phrase ‘The UK already has a massive stock of social housing…’. He argues that the policies of ‘the left’ are predictable – build more council houses – and not a solution. And then, he falls into superficiality: ‘For all the romanticisation of social housing, modern consumers do not want to live in the massive monocultural housing estates of the past’.
So where has John been for the last 30 years? Social housing has been in serious decline as a tenure, quite deliberately so as Governments have encouraged home ownership and private renting. It is the rapid decline in social renting that is at the heart of the housing crisis facing people on low incomes, and it is about to get much worse if the Housing Act is implemented. The millions on housing waiting lists are also consumers and they want to consume a genuinely affordable rented home from a responsible social landlord. Why should their wishes be discounted?
The systemic bias in favour of private solutions has obscured the catastrophic failings of the market tenures. The ‘private sector smartness’ that John so admires is just not enough: it takes tough public sector operators like Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan to encourage, mould, cajole and force the profit-hungry development industry into making a real contribution to tackling the housing crisis. John seems to have missed the fact that the mantra of ‘mixed communities’ has been shared across the housing world for decades now – we just argue about the mix that is required and the overriding need to match the affordability of homes with the incomes of the people who need to live in them. Numbers matter, but what is built and for whom matters a lot as well.
And finally John lauds Michael Heseltine’s London Docklands Development Corporation and ‘the one figure with the breadth of vision’ Lord Andrew Adonis. Despite its many other achievements, LDDC delivered very little for people in housing need in the East End, and Adonis’ support for the redevelopment of council estates in inner London (although I think he has pulled back a bit from his original analysis) would take us on the same path: more homes, but not for the poor.
Sadly, proud true Blairites like John still fail to acknowledge that it was a catastrophic error not to build more social housing in the decade after 1997. The Tories have done even worse, but that’s not the lesson Labour should draw. New Labour was mesmerised by private sector solutions that did not deliver good outcomes. Above all, the hostility towards the very idea of council housing was one of New Labour’s most dreadful blunders – a blunder that must not be repeated.