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Housing Could Decide the General Election

In the upcoming general election, Labour needs to convince millions of working people it can change their lives for the better. That starts with a radical housing policy.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure. The next general election will be close. Brexit noise is drowning out the issues ignored by the establishment for decades, fuelling widespread disillusionment and anger with the political system. To win, Labour must cut through the divisiveness of the EU question by addressing the things that really matter to working-class people and communities. Corbyn is trying to do this, but he gets repeatedly dragged back into the Brexit quagmire. There’s one issue that can help him escape and propel Labour to victory. 

Few things impact more, on more people’s lives, than housing. Every week brings new evidence of catastrophic policy failure, the most recent example being the Children’s Commissioner’s report finding that 210,000 children are registered as homeless, some of them “growing up in shipping containers.” This outrage was also featured in Channel 4’s documentary “George Clarke’s Council House Scandal,” after which over 220,000 people signed a petition calling for 100,000 new council homes a year for 30 years. 

The signals on housing from the new, crisis-ridden government are clear: more of the same. As Mayor of London, Johnson abandoned even the flimsy commitments to phoney “affordable” housing that have become the norm. His blind-faith in private property developers is shared by the new housing minister, Robert Jenrick, who personifies the chronic failure of past decades. He’s the 18th person to hold the post in 22 years, the 9th since 2010 and has virtually no track-record on housing, other than as the owner of multiple homes. But his pronouncements on the subject confirm someone wedded to the ideological holy-cow of home ownership.

It is possible the Tories will throw a few housing sops in a pre-election period. There are some legacies from the May-era that could find their way into a manifesto, particularly ending no-fault evictions of private tenants (although this appears to have been kicked into the long grass, under pressure from landlords) and relaxing the spending restrictions on local councils to build new homes. It’s worth remembering that, historically, more council homes have been build under Tory governments than Labour and almost 30% of people on waiting lists live in shire districts where the Tories will be hoping to win votes.  

But it shouldn’t be hard for Labour to outflank the Tories on housing and it’s essential that they do. Their top five target seats currently held by Conservatives have an aggregate of 38,601 households on council waiting lists. This is indicative of the latent support Labour could win with a bold housing policy, with council housing at its core.

There are some positive elements in Labour’s current policy document Housing for the Many, like protecting secure tenancies for council tenants, scrapping the Bedroom Tax and ending the absurd definition of affordable housing as rents at 80% of the market level. But there’s a lot of room for improvement. 

Above all, there is no clear commitment to council housing. Instead, there are vague and over-complicated allusions to “social housing,” apparently with housing associations (HAs) continuing to be favoured with large amounts of public money, as is happening in London under Sadiq Khan.

This would be a reward for failure. Big HAs have become increasingly indistinguishable from private developers. They build more homes for the private market than social rent and some are involved in selling homes to property speculators that should be lived in by people in housing need. Many HA tenants and workers complain about the corporate culture that brings rent hikes, cuts and attacks on pay and conditions. HAs have lost their social purpose. Until they rediscover it, they shouldn’t get another penny of public money.

A future Labour government’s spending on housing needs to be much higher than its current position of restoring investment to 2010 levels. This reflects a lack of ambition. Jeremy Corbyn was quite right to say, in his first conference speech as party leader: “there’s no solution to the housing crisis that doesn’t start with council housing,” but it can’t stop there.

Our broken housing system will take a generation to fix, beyond the horizons of most politicians. Labour needs a compelling vision for a future in which we’re in control of our housing, instead of being controlled by it. Critical issues around land use, natural resources, health, social care and well-being can all be addressed by a long-term national housing programme that isn’t predicated on private profit. 

Making housing a central election campaign issue is vital for Labour, but at the moment the signs of that happening aren’t good. Responding to the government’s autumn statement, which contained barely a mention of housing, John McDonnell failed to raise the subject. Addressing the TUC, Jeremy Corbyn did, but only in passing. Appearing on BBC Question Time, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey, mentioned housing only once. This is worrying. Labour needs to seize the initiative, not just with convincing policies but by repeating the message, as they once did with “education, education, education.” 

More hopefully, the importance of housing is being recognised by grassroots Labour members. At the last count, 16 local parties had passed a resolution from the Labour Campaign for Council Housing backing Shelter’s call for 3.1 million new social rented homes over the next two decades, including 100,000 council homes a year. Young Labour has passed a similar motion, with additional measures to tackle empty homes, corporate housing associations and private landlords. Both resolutions call for the end of Right-to-Buy. 

This is the scale of ambition needed to really change our housing future. Tinkering around the edges won’t work and in a close election campaign, isn’t capable of elevating expectations and debate above the Brexit morass. Transforming housing policy raises the question of transforming society and that’s what the Labour Party needs to do.

The Homes for All Alliance and Defend Council Housing are holding a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference – one of several taking place about housing – on Tuesday,  September 24, from 6pm in Community Base, 113 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3XG. All welcome.

About the Author

Glyn Robbins is a housing worker, campaigner, writer and academic.