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The Fight for Housing Goes On

Labour had bold housing policies in the general election - but it failed to build a narrative that got them across. Now, the challenge is to engage with the movements fighting the housing crisis at the grassroots.

I wrote this for the Guardian before the 2010 general election. It makes painful reading now because I could have written more or less the same about the three elections since. During the intervening years, the housing situation for working-class people has got worse, the far-right has continued to exploit the issue and I’ve lost count of the number of housing ministers. 

This sense of frustration was heightened on 12th December 2019. There are many things to say about why Labour lost. But from the perspective of a long-time housing worker and campaigner, the party’s failure to foreground the issue, as myself and others urged was, I feel, a mistake. 

It’s even more annoying because, unlike in previous years, the party really had something good to say: a policy agreed unanimously at conference that even the usually politically cautious Shelter described as potentially “transformational.” At its heart was a commitment to build 100,000 council homes a year, but this was only part of an agenda that would have seriously challenged the status quo.

And there’s the rub. There are many possible explanations for why housing is the political dog that doesn’t bite, but the main one is that reforming the current system requires reforming capitalism itself. Despite its call for a new direction on housing (and other things), Labour appeared to lack the courage of its convictions.

As an indication of this, I counted almost one hundred tweets from the party’s press office between the announcement of its housing policy on 21st November and the election. Only three were about housing. The pent-up demand, verging on desperation, for an answer to the housing crisis was not really put to the electorate. Amidst the blizzard of policies that others have commented on, Labour’s housing manifesto was lost.   

I met the shadow housing minister, John Healey (also referred to unfavourably in my 2010 Guardian article), the day party conference backed a bold new approach to housing. He was already talking down the possibility of Labour delivering on its policy commitments, a sense of pessimism that conveys itself to voters.

Healey’s counsel of despair reflects the ideologically-driven perception that housing is out of our control. In one sense, that’s true – because for decades housing policy has been under the thumb of big property developers, aided and abetted by complicit central government and supine local councils. But history proves we can control our housing destiny. In the 20th century, the UK went from being poorly housed to a reasonably well housed country in 50 years, with public housing and serious government investment at the core. 

One of my most dispiriting experiences during the election campaign came when leafleting in Harlow, a winnable Labour seat. Along with the other post-war New Towns, Harlow’s a place that embodies the hope of a better society and features some council housing that can rival lauded examples in places like Vienna. But recreating the spirit and form of the New Towns, which ultimately accommodated over a million people, required Labour to carefully build a sense of the possibility and the groundwork for that optimistic vision needed to be established over years, not weeks.   

The advancement of council housing as a viable alternative to the dysfunctional private market, in places like Harlow, always stuck in the Tory craw, much as the NHS does. As with our public health service, dismantling the infrastructure of genuine public housing has been a long term objective. In 1998, right-wing housing academic Peter King wrote: “The aim should be to privatise the social rented stock and allow market relations to develop.” With the election of Johnson, the Tories will be planning to fulfil this wish. 

We need to stop them and that can’t wait until the next general election. Nor will it be achieved by just choosing a new Labour leader, whoever it may be. That said, there are clear dangers if there’s a reversion to the kind of pro-market housing policies that have failed miserably and cost the party credibility and votes. In this respect, the role of Labour-controlled councils and mayors is very important.

Although it’s too early to be sure, there’s every chance an emboldened Tory government will try to double-down on its attempts to destroy what’s left of council housing and complete the corporate transformation of housing associations, all with the goal of normalising the super-exploitation of private renting and maintaining the ideological hegemony of home ownership through huge public subsidies to private house builders (whose shares rose significantly after the election). 

Mayors Khan, Burnham and Rotheram – all representing strong Labour areas – must champion the resistance. There were many expressions of a renewed commitment to council housing from local Labour politicians before the election. That must not be forgotten now. The arguments for systemic housing reform are as valid today as they were on 12th December and the need for them will only increase under Johnson. 

There are things that can be done immediately. Labour mayors and councils must stop selling-off public land and use it to build council homes, using some of the millions of pounds held in Section 106 (“planning gain”) accounts. Where there are partnerships with private developers and housing associations, new homes must be strictly related to local housing needs, without the use of phoney definitions of affordable housing. There must be an absolute moratorium on the sale of homes intended for social renting and an end to the wanton demolition of council estates under contrived, short-term and dishonest pretexts. 

Above all though, the Labour Party and the wider labour movement must get more involved in the many grassroots housing justice campaigns around the country. Failure to do so in the past contributed to the defeat on 12th December. It’s not enough to pay lip-service to the scale of the housing crisis confronting working class communities, it takes action.

The perfect recent example of how to do it is the campaign against the Housing and Planning Act which launched in January 2016. The legislation posed a mortal threat to council housing and would have fundamentally reshaped the housing landscape in favour of private corporate interests. But a brilliant campaign of resistance, embracing tenant organisations, trade unions, politicians from several parties, faith leaders, academics and others, drove the legislation into the long grass, where it has largely remained. Similar threats are now looming and require a similar response. 

What happened on housing – or rather, didn’t happen – was a microcosm of what went wrong with the election. Platitudes and policy bombs aren’t enough. What happens between election campaigns is as important as what happens during them. Although it’s hard to imagine, the housing crisis could get worse, especially with any post-Brexit deals with the Slumlord-in-Chief at the White House.

There will be resistance, but it needs to be united and built on the widest possible front, not restricted to party or factional loyalties – a broader imperative for Labour and the movement. The Tories want to turn back the housing clock 100 years – absolute domination by the private sector with all the social, economic and environmental insecurity and hardship that entails. The time to build an alternative is now.