Aspiration Can Belong To The Left

I have prepared the article below for a Labour-linked blog. While still reeling from the shock result of the election, with Labour making very limited headway in England and all but wiped out in Scotland, I think it’s crucial that the upcoming leadership election is not defined by the ‘aspiration’ espoused by so-called ‘modernisers’.

 

People are still working out why the election outcome was so strong for the Conservatives. They managed to more or less maintain their 2010 position and capitalise on the collapse of the Lib Dems to build a wafer-thin majority. So the question must be asked: how did Labour gain so little ground over the past five years? I don’t think the Mansion Tax lost Miliband the election: once the perception of a weak leader and economic incompetence was formed, it was fatal to Labour’s election prospects.

 

In politics, if a narrative is repeated often enough and is not challenged, it rapidly comes to be treated as fact. Within the Labour movement, one such story threatens to cloud our judgment: it is said we’ll never be re-elected unless we ‘get aspiration’. The words themselves ring true, but the idea attached to them is flawed.

 

The truly popular governments of the past were propelled into power because they understood the aspirations of large sections of society. The Attlee government promised nothing less than a war on poverty and injustice. Thatcher and Blair after her saw the longing for freedom to own, speculate and just maybe make big money.

 

Aspiration means different things to different generations. And thus in the meritocratic society governments inherited in the 80s and 90s, when opportunity and wealth (to varying degrees) was in the hands of the many and not the few, it was popular to go easy on the rich and powerful. Naturally so, when kids from council estates were growing up to become millionaire investment bankers, even the poorest support generous tax breaks for millionaires!
Some have attributed Labour’s defeat to its moderately redistributionist platform. They call for a return to the early Blair orthodoxy of avoiding anything that smacks of tax-and-spend like the plague. But to do so would be to wrongly assume the electorate of 2020 wants the same as that of 1997.

 

The young people of today don’t aspire to own a large house in Islington. They’ll count themselves lucky if they can afford a part-share in a tiny flat in Peckham. Gone are the hopes of a stable, rewarding career when today millions scratch out an existence on scraps of agency work or zero hours contract. In these and countless other ways, it seems the hopes of the many have been comprehensively trashed by powerful interests. Governments of all parties have chosen not to address these issues, leading to the toxic feeling of disempowerment and betrayal that so many would-be voters feel.

 

Labour exists to represent working people, so why don’t we get back to that job? If we show voters that we’re in tune with their most simple aspirations, they’ll respond. Our offer in 2020 should be based on aspirational socialism. Let’s promise the next generation the affordable, quality homes it needs; equal access to a world-class education and confidence in having a good job and protection from a strong welfare system. Also, our children deserve the best start in life, so let’s resurrect our pledge to eliminate child poverty altogether.

 

As a country, we seem to have forgotten how to get these basics right. Solutions exist, but they will cost billions of pounds to implement. Labour will have to explain where its priorities would lie if it were elected in 2020. It would inherit a devastated public sector crying out for investment, an eroded tax base to pay for it and probably a small budget deficit to close. Labour must be frank: a just society costs money and we will expect the most privileged to help out.

 

Progressive tax rises should be intelligently designed: for example taxing unearned wealth through Capital Gains Tax or ending tax breaks for landlords is fairer than taxing wages. And above all, our emphasis must be resolutely on these taxes allowing opportunity to be shared with ordinary people. To that end, every tax increase should be linked with a spending policy to aid social mobility. That’s what aspirational socialism means: opportunity for all, ensured by everybody making a fair contribution.

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Poor Doors: Segregation Made Classy

When news reached Americans that a new upmarket apartment block in New York would have a separate entrance for inhabitants of its social housing units, there was uproar. These “poor doors” were seen as an unnecessary humiliation for those on low incomes. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio (an unusually left-leaning Democrat) promised swift action to prevent the policy being implemented in any other housing developments.

Britain is, generally speaking, kinder to its ‘lower classes’ than the US. That is why many people will be shocked when they read a Guardian report on the proliferation of poor doors in London. Most of the public would consider poor doors not only an affront to good manners, but rather tacky as well. In polite society, the only respectable means of flaunting one’s wealth (insofar as that is not a contradiction in terms) is to do so in an modest, understated way. I can imagine that ‘rich door’ developments appeal to the sort of millionaire who buys diamond-encrusted smartphones and rings with rubies the size of hubcaps. Tackiness, as I say,

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Supposedly, there is more to justify poor doors in these developments other than preventing wealthy residents having to endure the sight of people on incomes beneath six figures. (But, to be fair, the plebs do smell, don’t they?) After all, members of the elite have to interact with waiters, shop assistants and suchlike on a daily basis. No, additional features like concierges, swimming pools and hotel-style lobbies have become fashionable in upmarket developments, and social housing tenants are denied access to these in order to save them the service charge.

That’s the official explanation, which I shall consider shortly. Unofficially, the absence of interaction between the ‘social strata’ is advertised as a selling point to wealthy would-be residents. In London, it is difficult for housing developers to avoid the mixing of their open market and the social housing units they are obliged to build alongside them. So their response is the poor door. I’m sure many rich home-buyers are put off by the tastelessness of the policy, but clearly there is sufficient demand anyway. As for the social housing tenants; they have little choice in the matter. Those who reach the top of comically long housing waiting lists may often only decline one or two properties allocated to them by their council, or they risk being struck off the list altogether. Having to use a poor door becomes a trivial concern.

Whilst it is true that social housing residents cannot afford the service charges that accompany the upkeep of upmarket lobbies and concierges, I don’t see segregated entrances as a proportionate solution. If developers can come up with a creative solution (they are paid to devise creative solutions) to provide unnecessary extras to those who want and are able to pay for them, that’s fine. Poor doors, however, are not fine. If developers cannot devise an alternative, then unfortunately London’s millionaires shall have to live without a 24-hour concierge service.

It is important to remember that these poor doors are not only separate, but unequal to the “rich doors”. Almost invariably, the poor doors are located in dimly lit alleys alongside bins or commercial goods entrances, whereas rich doors have accessible street entrances. Moreover, even the doors themselves look different. The Independent reports the case of one development “the affordable [housing] has vile coloured plastic panels on the outside rather than blingy glass.”

As if this were not sufficient demonstration of the perceived inferiority of social housing residents, everything from the corridors to refuse collections to postal deliveries tend to be segregated too. This blatantly and inexcusably eliminates any prospect of affluent and less affluent neighbours coming into contact at all, which is hardly conducive to community cohesion. And the Establishment wonder why there are periodic riots. Many social scientists maintain that mixed tenure housing developments, hosting communities in which all social classes interact to the greatest possible extent, are the key to mutual understanding and respect. A pity nobody is heeding their advice.

A Chinese ambassador once visited the Khmer Empire at the end of the 13th century, and reported with a sense of wonder the treatment of slaves there. It was extreme even by medieval standards. He wrote:

They are permitted to lie down or be seated only beneath the floor of the house. To perform their tasks they may go upstairs, but only after they have knelt, bowed to the ground and joined their hands in reverence.

The snubbing of social housing residents is perhaps not quite as extreme. But you do wonder if those inflicting poor doors on London would feel it reasonable to demand similar ‘reverence’ from the second class people, who are grudgingly tolerated in these developments!

Official: It’s “Perfectly Legitimate” to Discriminate Against Benefits Claimants

An individual private business will make commercial decisions. If they actually decide they don’t want to have somebody on housing benefit in the future, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.

Kris Hopkins MP (Con)

Kris Hopkins, Minister for Housing, gave an interview to the BBC’s Panorama programme last night in which he defended the blanket bans on, and evictions of, tenants claiming Housing Benefit (HB) by private landlords. Under the Coalition’s cuts to the benefit, payments are capped and now go into tenants’ bank accounts rather than directly to the landlords.  Unsurprisingly, this has led to some tenants falling behind on their rent, which has led to the exclusion of all HB claimants from much of the private rented sector.

Who’d claim Housing Benefit these days? Between crude caps that exclude you from half of the country; heartless property barons arbitrarily making you homeless; and ministers endorsing your treatment as a second class citizen, you’d only ask for state help if you absolutely had to. (Err, wait a second…)

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It’s inevitable that landlords will only rent to people who can afford the property. That is “legitimate”, and it is up to government to expand the social housing sector to ensure that the poor are adequately housed. However, the exclusion of anybody who receives Housing Benefit from a property is not a valid business practice. Although those on HB are, by definition, poor, the majority are perfectly capable of setting aside the money for rent. Even when seriously hard-up, most tenants will prioritise rent above all other expenses up to food. That’s because keeping a roof over one’s head is much more important than keeping bailiffs from taking the sofa.

I must say, Coalition policy about HB reveals a lot about their attitude. The cuts to the benefit were not about hitting the “scroungers” to support “hardworking families”, whatever the Tory rhetoric was. The majority of HB claimants are in work. No, this is an old-fashioned campaign to attack the poor, regardless of their employment status.

Whilst it is not impossible for a family on HB to find a home to rent, it is becoming more difficult. Look online at a rentals website, or in the property section of a local paper (if you’ve still got one) and many adverts will say “Sorry no DHSS”. This is infuriating on two counts. Not only is there the social exclusion of benefits claimants, often the working poor, but there is the term. If the landlords were that “sorry” they wouldn’t impose that particular condition. Much the same principle applied when the “no Blacks, no Irish” caveats were ubiquitous before the 1960s. (Also, the DHSS, or Department for Health and Social Security, which used to pay out HB, hasn’t existed since 1988. I know it’s a petty complaint, but I think people should get their facts straight.)

Anyway, a number of those receiving HB are pensioners or disabled. Is the Minister for Housing seriously supporting discrimination against those who, for perfectly “legitimate” reasons, do not earn their own income?

I don’t like to think the worst of people, but there’s little to suggest Hopkins is concerned by the injustices he has helped to create. If he was, these “no DHSS” polices would be banned.

If Rent Caps Are “Venezuelan”, Call Me Chavez

The Labour Party has launched its campaign for the local and European elections (to be held in 20 days’ time)… With proposals for national legislation. Setting aside the implicit dropping of even the pretence that local elections should be about local issues, it marks the first recognition of the millions of homerenters who have had such a raw deal since the deregulation of 1988 and the post-2000 housing cost explosion.

Ed Miliband is proposing that the standard 12-month contract that exists in the private rented sector (PRS) be replaced with a 36-month one, in which rents may only be increased annually and subject to a cap based on the average rent change. Given that about 75% of rented houses that would make up that average would be capped according to said average, there is the risk of distortion. Anyhow, these caps and longer contracts would be complemented by a ban on letting agents’ fees, eliminating the £500 fee tenants usually have to pay for the privilege of being ripped off.

Although these proposals do not constitute the full state intervention and rent caps which are required in the housing market, they are the first big improvements in the PRS seen in generations. The needs of Britain’s nine million renters are finally getting the political attention they deserve. This has terrified interests which have made a fortune from the rip-off rentals sector: letting agents, landlords’ associations and the Conservative Party have accused Labour of planning to wreck the housing market, of economic illiteracy and of perusing “Venezuelan” socialism. Of course, One Nation Labour’s brand of neoliberalism-tainted socialism is not even in the same postcode as the “Bolivarian” or “21st century” ideology of Hugo Chavez and Co.

But the tiny elite of landlords, banksters and Tories should be wary of moderate reforms which slow their accumulation of obscene unearned wealth. If public anger with their perpetual exploitation grows, they’re going to want more than controlled rises on already expensive rents, for example.

Although the transformation of the PRS is still a long way off: proper security of tenure; Living Rents; restricting buy-to-let; eliminating amateur landlords; and non-profit market leaders are all absent from Labour’s reforms, we’re still lightyears ahead of the total ignoring of the PRS of which the political class is guilty.

This is a great start.

How Will IDS Tackle Child Poverty?

Later this week, the Work and Pensions secretary and the Schools minister will outline their the Government’s programme it will use to meet its own target to eliminate child poverty by 2020. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) has been associated with some of the worst spending cuts imposed by the Coalition, so will be keen to demonstrate his more caring side in the universally popular cause of helping impoverished children.

Yet he has been accused of political manoeuvring following his plan to redefine the “child poverty”. Presently, the figure shows the number of children living in households on less than 60% of median income- admittedly a blunt but effective measure of poverty relative to the entire population. (Incidently, the Living Wage is approximately 60% of median pay, suggesting that the general rule for policymakers is to reduce inequality to the point that everybody is on at least 60% of median income). Yet IDS wants other measures incorporated, such as being part of “stable family” and having access to a good education. It would be ambitious statistical engineering to quantify some of those factors, though I’ve no doubt that IDS has good intentions in proposing it. Nevertheless, they would allow his successors to point out that several contributory factors to child poverty are outside of government control, and therefore shrug off responsibility for existing targets.

Besides, some of the ideas sketched out are ill-defined. What is a “stable family”? Will a child be considered impoverished simply for having separated parents? Or, on the other hand, does a child belonging to a nuclear family have to be more financially deprived than her neighbour from a “broken home” (as the Daily Mail would so open-mindedly term it) to count as living in poverty? Furthermore, any more tampering with statistics by the government will render them untrustworthy. It is interpretive that we have neutral, trusted statistics at the heart of policy debate.

Such is the argument deployed by the Treasury against redefining child poverty. I think there is room for compromise: the Office for National Statistics could be asked to compile figures on material child poverty (the existing definition) and holistic child poverty, along the lines of IDS’ proposals. Government would remain committed to existing material child poverty targets, but could also tackle the holistic figures in time.

After we’ve agreed how we are measuring the problem, we have to turn our attention to devising solutions. I can’t say that the Government line sounds particularly encouraging; referencing the £50 energy bill imposed last month; restrictions on water cost inflation; and food vouchers.

I’m curious as to the last one. The last thing the UK needs is to import the American invention of food stamps. We’re doing a good line in foodbanks already: bit by bit, we’re stripping the poor of dignity and independence. I’ve said before that the universal subsidy of basic foodstuffs would be a fairer way of controlling living costs. It will be interesting to see the scope of the proposed voucher system, given the limited resources available to ministers.

Short of a multibillion investment in food vouchers, there are no measures proposed by the Coalition that will make a significant reduction in child poverty, material or holistic. No wonder Britain is set to have 2,000,000 children still living in poverty by the time it is supposed to be eliminated. That’s because inequality can only be reduced with a combination of skill, determination and resources. I wonder which of these the Coalition is prepared to use.

The World This Week:

Arizona legalises discrimination against homosexuals

Opponents have reacted with fury to to the passing of an “anti-gay” bill by Arizona’s state legislature. The US state’s Republican administration voted through a bill that will allow businesses to refuse to serve homosexuals, if they feel that they have religious grounds to do so. The move sparked demonstrations in the cities of Phoenix and Tuscon, though these are not the last defence against the legislation. Business leaders are leaning heavily on the Governor to veto the bill. Businesses who fear the impact of potential boycotts ahead of the 2015 Super Bowl, which is to be hosted by the state, are eager to avoid damaging Arizona’s image.

New Indian province formed

India is to gain its 29th state, Telangana, after proposals were approved by the federal government. The state, which encompasses a population of 35,000,000, will be carved out of the eastern Andhra Pradesh region. The move comes despite resistance from the government of Andhra Pradesh, which is particularly aggrieved due to the loss of its capital city of Hyderabad to the new state. Yet such opposition is drowned out by the decades-long campaign for Telangana, a farming-centred region which considers itself long neglected by the federal political and economic leadership. One observer noted: “this is the first time that the central government has moved to create a new state in the face of such opposition from the “parent” state.”

857,000 at risk of starvation in Somalia

The UN’s director of humanitarian operations has spoken out after his department’s appeal for its humanitarian fund raised just $36 million out of its $933 million target. The UN warned that approximately 10% of Somalia’s population is in desperate need of food. This is a consequence of further droughts and population displacement hitting the region’s beleaguered population. “Somalis have suffered endlessly for almost 25 years. We cannot be distracted now from our task to stay with them, to help to consolidate these fragile gains … and this requires funding”. It is felt in some circles that crises elsewhere on the international scene has drawn attention away from lower-profile but severe problems in East Africa.

Scandal of Europe’s empty homes

Figures collated by the Guardian newspaper show that there are some 11 million houses standing empty across the European Union- compared to 4.1 million who are homeless. The problem is particularly acute in Spain, in which 14% of homes are empty. Housing charities observed that even in countries suffering from a shortage of affordable housing, such as Ireland and Spain, there are large numbers of vacant homes. More expensive housing units are more likely to be owned by absentee investors, which is prompting heightened calls for restrictions on speculation. David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes charity, said “Homes are built for people to live in, if they’re not being lived in then something has gone seriously wrong with the housing market.”

Ukranian interim President calls for EU links

In a dramatic break with his missing predecessor,  the interim President of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, declared his intention to re-open free trade negotiations with the European Union. This marks a firm move away from the Russian sphere of influence and back towards the EU by the east European Nation. However, “opposition” parties have instructed protestors not to withdraw from Kiev’s Independence Square until a new government is formed. With increasingly hostile rhetoric about Turchynov emerging from local officials in the Russian-leaning east of the country, the stability of any pro-Europe government is far from assured.

Reindeer wiped out by South Georgia government

Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), a British territory located south of the Falkland Islands, has successfully killed off its reindeer population. The cull represented a £900,000 programme to eliminate the non-native species due to the devastating effect it was having on the indigenous bird population. Norwegian officials were flown to the territory to assist in the programme, resulting in the execution of some 6,600 reindeer.

 

 

 

London Homes Are For Londoners

We all know that the British housing market is an absolute joke. It has become so distorted as to lock-in vast proportions of the national wealth in housing that is overvalued and of relatively low quality (British housing is notoriously cramped and energy inefficient by European standards). In the nation’s capital, the situation is even more surreal. Families of even the skilled middle class are being priced out of the city altogether, pushed out by slum landlords, chronic under-supply, amateur landlords, housing speculators, foreign owners and migrant workers with tragically low expectations. The average house price in the city  is £449,500. That’s 18 times the median income.

As I’ve said, there are about half a dozen factors that have rendered London unaffordable for ordinary people. Ultimately, demand will force the city to grow further into the surrounding countryside (who fancies a daily Tube commute to the Square Mile from the suburban London Borough of Sevenoaks?) or a consistent policy response to ease, and even reverse, the capital’s recent population growth. By massive regionalisation of government and key industries, the pressure on a city that represents about 12% of the UK population- but most of its power- could be eased. In the future, London should not have the monopoly on the ambitious, the high fliers and the head offices: regional powerhouses like Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol must become just as important. Even clusters of “New Towns” could between them become economic centres.

But such an aim will take decades to realise, leaving the issue of soaring housing demand in London chasing a limited supply. It is the government’s responsibility to address this, as it can in three ways. It can curtail demand, boost supply or abandon housing to market forces, forcing the poor out of the city (or into ghettoes on its outer edges). The present government has chosen option three, slashing Housing Benefit to accelerate the process. The opposition is calling for a combination of options one and two.

Londoners must be given a real chance to buy or rent [new] homes.

We will stop developers advertising properties overseas first and ensure they are available for the people that really need them.

We will give councils proper powers to tackle ‘buy-to-leave’. We will consult on allowing councils to double the amount of additional council tax they can charge on empty properties, and close loopholes which mean homes are not considered empty if they are furnished with just a single table and chair.

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party

The principle is 100% sound. Why on earth would we sell homes to millionaires in Malaysia when there aren’t enough to go round for existing Londoners? This is not a debate about immigration: a large number of the new houses built in London are being sold to absentee owners who do not intend to move to the country; they are being purchased as investments. Besides, it is actual immigrants who are suffering the most due to London’s housing shortage. However, my concern with the policy is just that it doesn’t go far enough.

If the aim is to reduce artificial demand for homes caused by speculation, then no half-measures will be effective. Here’s how to end the scandal of houses left empty for profit while others go homeless:

  • Hike Capital Gains Tax on houses. If somebody is looking to profit by sitting on an habitable house, they must pay towards the social costs. A standard rate of, say, 95% of the properties’ appreciation should be sufficient.
  • Impose a residency test on home ownership. Nobody can own residential property unless they are a UK resident. Immigrants may buy their home, speculators who live elsewhere cannot.
  • Multiply Council Tax on spare homes. In particular, it should be prohibitively expensive to own a third house. A second is questionable enough.

Some things are more important than appeasing speculators and fat cats. And I’m afraid that providing everyone with a decent, secure and affordable home is one of them.

The World Review #3: Nasty Landlords, Negligent Companies and Net Connections

737 exposed to contaminated water in West Virginia

Some 300,000 people are without a safe water supply and 737 are in hospital with suspected poisoning after Freedom Industries, a specialist chemicals manufacturer, leaked 19,000 litres of a toxic chemical into the Elk River. It appears that Freedom Industries were aware of the leakage for some time before authorities discovered it, but failed to act to either contain the leak or inform the state. It is as yet unclear why Freedom Industries allowed the highly toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol compound to continue to pollute the water supply. Pressure on the firm will be compounded by the shortage of bottled water that is sweeping West Virginia whilst tap water remains unsafe.

Kent landlord evicts 200 families… because they claim Housing Benefit

The British property tycoon Fergus Wilson risked public anger last week as it emerged that he had evicted 200 out of his 1,000 tenants on the sole grounds that they receive state subsidy for their rent. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Wilson said that tenants on Housing Benefit are more likely to fall into rent arrears, so he wanted to replace them with migrants from Eastern Europe, who he claimed are “a good category of tenant who don’t default on their rent.” He later added: “I feel sorry for battered wives who have come to us because we’re very much consigning them to go back to their husbands to be beaten up again.” Mr Wilson’s sympathy will no doubt be of great comfort to the families he has rendered homeless.

Venezuelan minister gets tough on corruption

Venezuela’s home affairs minister has given his personal mobile telephone number out in a television interview, with a plea for police officers to contact him to report allegations of corruption. This marks the latest of a series of eye-catching initiatives aimed at promoting professionalism and trust in Venezuela’s public services, which are particularly prone to exploitation by officials even when compared to the rest of South America, which has suffered from chronic corruption since colonisation in the 16th century. Venezuelan authorities are keen to tackle this culture, which has hindered the otherwise promising model of ‘Bolivarian socialism’ pioneered by the Chavez administration.

7 Opposition protesters shot in Thailand

An unidentified gunman has injured 7 people firing indiscriminately into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok. There were no casualties. It remains unclear if this was officially sanctioned by the government or the army, but it is thought to have contributed to the Opposition’s decision to attempt to “shut down” the Thai capital on Monday. However, opposition leaders are publicly seeking to calm their supporters, saying that they do not seek a “civil war”- though they are explicitly committed to the overthrow of the existing government, and are boycotting the election that is due in February. However, the government will be reassured by the army’s assurance that it would not attempt a military coup, after generals were slow to give such assurances previously.

al-Shabab bans the Internet in Somalia

Militants linked to al-Qaeda have instructed telecommunications companies in the parts of Somalia under their control to shut down all Internet services within 15 days. According to al-Shabab, failure to comply with their demands to sever web connections to the 1.2% of the population with Internet access would constitute “working with the enemy”, and those doing so would be punished as traitors (i.e. severely). The reasoning behind the move is not difficult to guess: al-Shabab wants to eliminate freedom of speech and the adoption of “Western” lifestyles, of which the Internet is now a large part.

Rhino hunting permit auctioned in Texas

A permit to hunt and murder one black rhino in a reserve in Namibia was auctioned in Dallas for an undisclosed sum last week, despite a large protest outside the auction and an 80,000 strong e-petition calling for the cancellation of the sale. The Dallas Safari Club, which organised the auction, insists that the sale of three such permits per year by the Namibian government actually aids conservation, by raising funds for conservation measures, and having hunters murder aged male rhinos, which do not breed and are liable to injure or kill their younger male counterparts. The argument has not convinced many outside of the hunting community, however.

Homes Are For Life, Not Profit

When the Thatcher government came to power in 1979, it was eager to reduce the size of the state as much and as quickly as possible. Most of its spending cuts and privatisations never enjoyed majority support, but were tolerated by an electorate pleased with the tax cuts and increased personal consumption they allowed. They were also tolerated because no better alternative, as they saw it, was on offer. However, there was one mass privatisation that seemed to have no losers: the “Right to Buy”- a scheme by which council tenants could purchase their own homes at discounts of up to 75% to the market value. Previously, council tenants wishing to buy had no option but to move house. It won over swathes of the working class to the Thatcherite fold- creating hundreds of thousands of lifelong Conservatives out of Labour’s key electoral base.

Over the 34 years the policy has been in place, it has been changed several times. New Labour quietly reduced the maximum discount to £32,000, but left the policy broadly intact. The Conservative-led coalition has ramped up discounts to 70% or £100,000 (whichever is lower), in a bid to accelerate the sale of council homes. Unfortunately, the consequence of the sales is that the social housing stock has drastically shrunk, with tenants cherrypicking the larger, higher quality accommodation. It’s perfectly understandable: If I could buy a 3 bed semi for £150,000 and sell it for over £250,000 a few years later, I would. The only problem is that the heavy discounts on Right To Buy have made it impossible for councils to replace the sold properties on a like-for-like basis, with the result that families are now queuing for years for social housing.

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The trouble is, the “property owning democracy” that Thatcher envisaged the policy creating couldn’t exist given the de-regulation of the housing market her government simultaneously pursued. We now have a situation in which easy mortgages, money grabbing buy-to-let landlords and legal changes have made house prices absurdly high, with rents even more unaffordable on a proliferating private rental sector in which tenants’ rights are negligible. We need a new system in which the spirit of “aspiration” that created Right To Buy is realised whilst everybody is entitled to a secure, affordable home.

We could start with the establishment of a Rentals Exchange. This service, provided by local councils, would function as the lettings agency through which every private let would have to be advertised and arranged. In order to register (and therefore in order to let out a property) landlords would be required to certify the good state of repair of the property, together with the setting of a Living Rent (in line with bands set by the council). Landlords guilty of poor practice would be barred from the Exchange.

Whilst allowance would be made for premium and larger properties, tenants would be able to move into a home that meets their needs safe in the knowledge that they will be charged a fair rent affordable to a family of the size occupying the property. The Rentals Exchange would protect them from inflation-busting rent increases, and it would ensure that good practice is observed by the landlord. Crucially, tenants could only be evicted for misconduct or falling into arrears: as long as a tenant meets her/his responsibilities, s/he is guaranteed the right to live in the house for as long as they like. Tenants might even be permitted to pass on their “Right to Reside” to a relative, if we are serious about the importance of security to tenants.

To this we add a radical change to Right To Buy. All tenants, be they council, social, or private, would have a statutory entitlement to buy their home at the market value: the discount would be abolished, but the right would be universal. Almost everybody would have a true sense of ownership of their home, which would have important social and psychological benefits. These changes would be almost revolutionary, but I don’t think this ‘Universal’ Right To Buy (URTB) would be used too often, for the disadvantages of renting would have been all but eliminated. In any case, the balance of housing stock could be protected by requiring councils and social landlords to replace sold homes on a like for like basis, whilst private landlords could be offered exemption from all taxes associated with URTB sales if they reinvest all of the proceeds in a replacement.

Lastly, two or three state-owned (or even mutually owned) companies would be set up to boost supply and competition in the private rentals sector. They would seek to make a profit, like their privately-owned counterparts, and would compete for the same customers in the Rental Exchanges. The only differences would be that a) they’d have the financial firepower to build the large, mixed tenure developments that would constitute a third wave of New Towns and b) profits would be invested in new council or social housing. These superlandlords would seek to compliment their private counterparts, not replace them.

It’s true that these proposals would discourage non-professional landlords from entering the market, and individuals may stop becoming landlords altogether. This is not necessarily a disadvantage. Tell me what improvements the army of middle-class unqualified landlords armed with buy-to-let mortgages have brought to the housing market, other than crowding out and exploiting would-be owner occupiers, and I will reconsider. What this does offer to landlords is a fair deal in which they can operate in a stable and sustainable market and make a reasonable profit in exchange for allowing tenants to live in security. It’s not much to ask.

Attempt To Repeal Bedroom Tax Narrowly Fails

The Bedroom Tax is the most hated of the Coalition’s welfare cuts- perhaps the only one with a solid majority (about 2 to 1) of the public opposed to the policy. It’s not that the principle is unacceptable: it sounds reasonable to ask those on Housing Benefit to live in a correctly sized home or pay some of the cost of the ‘luxury’ of a spare bedroom. Indeed, in times of a housing crisis, underoccupancy should be discouraged regardless of whether you own, rent independently, or rent with Housing Benefit. However, there are so many problems with the practicalities of almost any such policy that it could not be done without genuine cruelty.

I could rant about the absurdity of forcing tenants out of homes because they have a ‘spare bedroom’ of about 60 square feet- basically a windowed cupboard that you could cram a single bed into. Or how nasty it is to punish people for not moving into 1 and 2 bedroom social houses when they’re simply not available to move into. Or even demanding that the elderly vacate a family home of several decades, and find £1,000 in moving costs to do so. But it is well-worn ground, and I have one point that should cause thought even in the Bedroom Tax’s proponents: it will cost the state money to implement. A wave of new red tape, discretionary assistance payments and the incentive the Bedroom Tax provides to move into smaller, more expensive private rentals means that it is costing us money to penalise these people.

Such were the arguments put forward by the Parliamentary Labour Party yesterday when it forced a debate on repealing the Bedroom Tax. With the Liberal Democrats undergoing their familiar routine of sounding compassionate but doing exactly as the Tories (at least the Conservatives are honest!). Labour wanted to show the nation that the Liberal Democrats had an opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. And of 57 Lib Dem MPs, 2 voted against their whip. Overall, a slender majority of just over 20 defeated Labour, meaning that just a dozen Lib Dem rebels could have swung the vote: something that we should never let the electorate forget.

The voices of Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachael Reeves and the rebel President of the Liberal Democrats will be heard for many years as their warnings of ghettoisation and decline are realised.