The Housing Paradox and the Democratic Deficit

I think this post is what’s known as a ‘think piece’  I’m not sure what that means, but it comes in the days after the Housing and Planning Bill ‘passed through’ parliament, like a stomach bug that has messy and unpleasant consequences.  The campaign against the Bill must not only continue, but move on to a new footing.  The skirmishing is over: the real battle is about to begin.  It’s sometimes said that all politics is local and ultimately the fate of the Tories’ ideological assault will be decided locally.  In the coming year, critical issues of practical implementation, but also of political representation, will play out as some of the most ill-considered and malignant aspects of the Bill are revealed, often to people who have hitherto been unaware of them.  But there are some wider issues about how we came to this.

The Bill was passed on the same day as a White Paper about the future of the BBC.  The Beeb’s ‘flagship’ radio news programme ‘World at One’ devoted the first half hour of its news coverage that day to its self.  Four different people were interviewed, two of them BBC employees, including the Director General who said that people turn to the BBC to ‘find out what’s going on’.  As if this level of self-interest weren’t enough, there was another 45 minute programme devoted to the State broadcaster, by the State broadcaster, scheduled later on Radio 4.  In all this, I heard not a single mention of ‘what’s going on’ with the Housing and Planning Bill, an issue which will affect people’s daily lives far more than the future of the BBC.

In the wake of the controversy over the bias of one of its political correspondents, none of this comes as a surprise to those inured to the selective consciousness of the BBC and the mainstream media in general.  But the blind eye turned to housing is still a paradox at a time when the issue is consistently identified as one of peoples’ main concerns and for which they look to their political representatives for action.  The same could be said of immigration, but that’s a subject covered by the media ad nauseam.  There could be a connection here!

However, the under-recognition of housing – and the Housing Bill in particular – is not restricted to the fourth estate.  From the start of the campaign against the Bill, there have been signs that some politicians, local and national (including some representing the Labour Party) considered the issue of marginal significance.  Even if they thought the Bill was bad, they didn’t think enough people would share their opinion or be willing to do anything about it.  This judgment, perhaps based on calculating the fabled ‘middle ground’, might in part explain why local councillors and MPs were so slow to sound the alarm about the Bill (which they knew about long before anyone else did).  Even now, when the legislative writing is on the wall, those who might be expected to lead a campaign against such far-reaching, damaging measures, appear content to wring their hands.  The same is true of the higher echelons of the trade union and wider labour movement.

When you feel strongly about something it’s sometimes hard to understand why others don’t feel the same.  Of course, there are a myriad policies that are equally vicious as the Housing Bill, not least the Trade Union Bill which was also passed this week, with more of a whimper than a roar.  But I think there’s something deeper at work than just there not being enough hours in the week to fight every cause.

There’s something peculiar about mainstream social attitudes to housing that quickly turns a global political question into a personal morality play.  I’ve had numerous conversations with people who  bemoan the housing crisis and then say ‘but I’m part of the problem’.  This misplaced guilt might centre on having bought a former council home, or cashing-in on rapid price rises or (as is increasingly common) becoming a landlord.  It’s sometimes implied that people who are adequately housed themselves can’t campaign for everyone else to be.  I remember enough Marxism to realise that materialism determines consciousness and can see that for MPs and trade union general secretaries housing isn’t a problem.  But this is a strange attitude to political activism, particularly in the context of the Housing and Planning Bill.  We don’t usually require that people campaigning against injustice are themselves victims of it.  Moreover, one of the most important arguments against current housing policy is that it will have inter-generational consequences that will increasingly creep up the socio-economic scale.

Seeing housing through the lens of individualism is precisely the Tories’ ideological objective, but I experienced a good antidote to it yesterday.  A demonstration was organised in Islington that combined opposition to the Housing Bill with demands that the soon-to-be closed Holloway Women’s Prison site is used for community benefit, with council housing not another private development.  It wasn’t huge, but some protests exceed the sum of their parts.  Making the links between neoliberal housing policy, use of public land, the criminal (in)justice system, sexism, mental health and the social cleansing of our cities, but at a local, not macro, level are the way we will defeat the Housing Bill.  When it comes to the transcending significance of housing, some people ‘don’t get it’.  Jeremy Corbyn does.

JC etc. at London Met 14.5.16.



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