(As I begin this post I’m conscious that a number of people have tuned-in to my blog in the last few days. I’m very flattered and hope you and others will find it worthwhile. Please feel free to comment – one way or another.)
The Housing and Planning Bill focuses attention on the extent to which the Labour Party has changed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Between 1997 and 2010, ‘New’ Labour pursued a disastrous housing policy – a pact with the neoliberal devil – some of the consequences of which are now becoming clear. For all the criticisms that can rightly be made of current government housing policy, some of it is a legacy of Blairism.
During those thirteen Labour years, campaigners fought a constant battle to remind councillors, MPs and ministers of the party’s tradition as builders and supporters of council housing. In retrospect, it was a forlorn task. New Labour’s wholesale conversion to ‘the market’ was directly reflected in its aim of privatising 200,000 council homes a year through the stork transfer programme that enriched some of the housing associations who now explicitly refer to themselves as private developers. The rhetorical New Labour justification, cloaked in the pseudo-philosophy of The Third Way, was that who provided homes didn’t matter, so long as they were. But they weren’t!
By leaving it to the market, private developers and unaccountable housing associations, New Labour effectively left it to chance and the seeds of the current housing crisis were sown. Not enough homes were built and those that were too often failed to meet growing housing need. Instead of implementing a coherent, national housing strategy New Labour used public money and land to feed the speculative property market which it had come to see as the alchemy of economic growth. The folly of this was brutally exposed by the credit-crunch crash from which New Labour never recovered. Amazingly, some Labour politicians appear not to have learned the lessons of allowing housing policy to be dictated by corporate avarice and the holy-cow of home ownership.
To accompany structural shifts in tenure, New Labour pursued an ideological assault on council tenants. This was sometimes sweetened by the blandishments of ‘community’ and ‘regeneration’, but contained a strong moral message that renting from the Council implied a lesser form of citizenship. The clearest evidence of New Labour thinking in this area was when Caroline Flint, in her first day as Housing Minister in 2008, advocated the abolition of secure tenancies, something the Tories are now trying to put into practice.
Throughout what sometimes felt like long, lonely years, campaigners arguing for the restoration of council housing as part of a more balanced housing policy had two constant allies within the parliamentary Labour Party – Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. As recently as November 2014 I was at a demonstration against revenge evictions outside parliament when they were the only two MPs who crossed the road to join us. So in a way it was no surprise when, yesterday evening, they both came to a meeting inside parliament organised by campaigners against the Housing and Planning Bill. But of course, the thought that such a meeting would ever have been attended by Blair, Brown, Balls or even Milliband is the stuff of weird dreams.
The arrival of Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell at the Kill the Bill meeting brought immediate cheers, loud applause and a palpable surge of confidence in the packed committee room. This is not to say that everyone there was a loyal or born-again Labour Party supporter: many were not. But the ovation was in acknowledgment that the critical issues within the Bill and the people threatened by them were at least recognised by two, now leading, political figures.
Symbolic support is not enough, but the speeches the two men made indicated that a significant shift is taking place in how Labour thinks about housing and maybe politics more generally. John McDonnell said ‘If we can’t beat it in parliament, we’ll have to beat the Housing Bill on the streets’ and pledged support for the Kill the Bill campaign. Jeremy Corbyn talked about the need for an emergency national house building programme, the establishment of a decent home as a right and said ‘I want to be the Prime Minister of a Labour government that wants to build and is proud of council housing’.