In my last post I criticised the Labour Party for its opposition to three Conservative policies, Right to Buy, The Under-occupancy Penalty (aka The Bedroom Tax) and their latest policy, Pay to Stay.
“I would also suggest that both Right to Buy and Pay to Stay are on the right side of the argument; the British people on the whole ‘get fairness’, hence the electoral appeal of Conservative policies last May.”
Opposition to these policies puts Labour on the wrong side of the argument; the larger electorate, the one Labour need to win over at a general election, are persuaded by the fairness of these policies.
Briefly taking each one in turn…
- Right to Buy: The majority of those in social housing tenancies do so because they need somewhere to live, their personal circumstances make the private sector not an option. What they are not doing is embracing the concept of social housing and many harbour ambitions, should their circumstances change, to own the roof over their heads. So I would argue that ‘fairness’ points to a discount based on rent paid (rent should never be ‘dead money’) and an opportunity to buy. Proper implementation of RTB is a key point; any monies received should be ring-fenced to build more social housing and there needs to be a ‘legal lock’ to guarantee this. It is on this last point that the Conservatives fail. Incidentally, I would argue that RTB should be extended to both housing association properties and those in the PRS (when that sector has longer tenancies).
- The Bedroom Tax: Opposing this legislation is a favourite pastime of a core section of the current Labour Party, the hand wringing and shroud waving sect. The legislation has resulted in some high profile cases which reflect poor implementation; no one should be forced out of their home if they have a spare room needed for medical equipment or or one that provides occasional accommodation to a carer, nor should they be forced out if ‘downsizing’ is not an option, given the shortage of one bedroom properties. The removal of a subsidy that ‘gifts’ a social sector tenant a ‘spare room’ at the expense of the taxpayer is fair; tenants in the private sector do not receive the same treatment (fairness !); so Labour need to focus on better ‘implementation’ not opposition to the principle.
- Pay to Stay: A tad more difficult, this one, to argue that it is fair but I will have a go. Perception of fairness is just as important as fairness in the raw especially when setting an election winning agenda. Many in the PRS do not think it is fair that someone on a similar salary, £30k and upwards, should enjoy subsidised social housing.
An aspect of Conservative policy making is a certain cleverness in pushing policies perceived as ‘fair’ to the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, or White Van Man, or Mrs White Van Man, take your pick, that have an agenda wrapped up within the fairness pill. This agenda is ‘shrinking the size of the state’, this, as an example, might explain RTB without a proper replacement policy; the Tories are no friend of social housing.
Conservative policy making is as much about setting a trap for Labour to fall into as it is about anything else, and the three policies outlined above are a good example.
Now, just in case there is a temptation to file the author under ‘Closet Tory’ read on.
The Conservative Party myth
The real overarching agenda of the Conservative Party is preservation of the status quo, privilege and elitism, carefully packaged in the illusion that the Conservatives are ‘the party of business’.
Conservatives as the ‘party of business’ does not extend much beyond repealing legislation that seeks to give workers a better deal; in key important areas such as encouraging and promoting investment, productivity and a proper culture, like Germany, of well-trained apprenticeships the Conservatives fall short or just pay lip service.
It is a myth that the Conservatives have a better record of economic management. In the 2015 election they were gifted an own goal by Labours refusal, or was it forgetfulness, in defending its economic record and their handling of the 2008 financial crisis; perhaps Labour were fixated on other things, The Bedroom Tax perhaps.
The challenges ahead
We live in an exciting changing world full of challenges; we also live in a UK held back by a lack of constitutional reform, a UK experiencing growing inequality, a UK overburdened by tradition, and a UK with more than one eye on the past.
The real challenge for Labour is to outline an agenda that tackles the real issues of fairness.
Fairness Issue 1: Home ownership and private education
Today in the UK, home owners enjoy a massive advantage over those who don’t own; it is not just a home it is a financial asset, it is an ATM to pay for expensive cars and holidays. It is virtually, stamp duty aside, tax free if it is the main residence.
[By a coincidence my bank account grew by £120k in 2014 and by another £120k in 2015. The only difference being that in 2014 it was through work and taxed, in 2015 it was sale of property and tax free]
In London and the South East home ownership is out of reach, to anyone on a median income, without help from home owning parents. The great driver of inequality in the UK, private education, now has an able and formidable assistant, home ownership.
The issue and challenges of the private education question has engaged Labour minds for decades. Harold Wilson and his 1960s Labour government were moving towards abolition (there were strong rumours that they were warned off by ‘the establishment’). Tony Blair and his New Labour government were in favour of live and let live and instead focussed on bringing state education up to the same standard as private education; they had some success but not enough.
Today in the UK we have the 7% privately educated getting the best jobs despite the damning indictment that undergraduates from state schools do better than those from private schools.
So fairness making a bit of a comeback there; but we need to do much more. I would suggest the removal of charitable status together with legislation preventing fee-paying schools from paying a teacher more than a teacher in a state school on the same grade (this is the case in Germany).
To put it into perspective, Brighton College, a highly regarded private school, recently received planning clearance for a £40M sports science block complete with a running track on the roof; this follows completion in 2015 of a state of the art music room with acoustics that would make Beethoven weep. This is not really about education is it, it is about creating an elite.
Private education today is a very different animal to what it was in the sixties; it is open to all with the right mix of bank balance and priorities, it also gives a first rate education to the fortunate children who goes there. It is big slick business and the very phrase ‘minor public school’ is disappearing as a cultural reference.
Though good for an individual child it is bad for the country as a whole; it is elitist and generates a sense of entitlement, it also, by the mere act of going to a fee-paying school with a recognisable name, opens doors in a way not available to state school pupils.
Fairness Issue 2: The private rental sector
There was very little from Labour in May 2015 on the housing crisis and in particular the private rental sector and Labour need to up their game. This is far more important than protection of unfair advantages enjoyed by some tenants in the social housing sector.
I had an interesting meeting a few days ago with Green councillor, David Gibson, who is in favour of the introduction of rent controls; David produced a well researched and comprehensive analysis of the issue that went some way to counter my scepticism in this area.
The PRS is challenging; at play we have the conflict between being a landlord and selling for capital gains, the age and condition of property (far worse than social housing), the gut fear of private landlords to any legislation at all.
Labour need to get this right, to get it wrong courts disaster, especially given the vanishing safety net that is social housing. It is not enough to transplant German style controls into a different culture.
Fairness Issue 3: Constitutional Reform
We live in a dysfunctional democracy where an election in our first-past-the-post means very little in terms of playing a part in facilitating change to someone not voting in a marginal constituency.
A proper system of proportional voting would remove the ‘sameness’ of policies designed not to upset the centre, it would mean Labour could be bolder and more radical in policy, no longer needing 35% plus to govern alone but instead getting, say, 25% and joining with other parties left of centre. Germany, one of the most stable and well run countries in the world, has had coalitions every election since WW2 with the exception of 1958.
We also have an unelected upper house; an elected second chamber in any democracy is vital to providing necessary checks and balances and this needs to change.
The issue of reforming the upper house needs to be combined with the problem of the regional dominance of London; an elected upper house, in a modern building designed by an award winning architect, digitalised to the max, and situated in, say, Hebden Bridge, might just be the ticket.
Fairness Issue 4: The Royal Family and the Aristocracy
The Royal Family is going through a golden period; it has never been more popular and is blessed by a glamorous younger generation.
I have to confess I lean to being a monarchist, slightly, rather than a republican.
But let’s be fair here; the Civil List is too generous and needs trimming, there are too many hangers on, and lands and property held by the Royal Family are excessive and of dubious entitlement.
I also note the sinister trend of the establishment to exploit the propaganda value of the younger Royals with hardly a week going by without Prince Harry or the Duchess of Cambridge popping up on prime time TV in programmes about their devotion, highly commendable by the way, to good causes. Too much is Royal propaganda.
So Labour might need to look at legislation to facilitate the shaping of a trimmed down Royal Family fit for a modern world. In addition, there is a need to review the need for a Privy Council and the role of the Monarch in dissolving Parliament.
The same goes for the aristocracy; the Duke of Westminster owns, most, of Mayfair, prime real estate in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Similarly, the Earl of Cadogan owns chunks of Chelsea (I squatted in one of his properties in 1977).
So how about a one off piece of legislation to confiscate properties or at least force to offer as affordable housing?
Remember the theme here – it is all about being fair.
The next election
The Labour Party will be up against it in May 2020; even the formidable New Labour election winning machine would struggle with the SNP entrenchment in Scotland and the coming boundary changes.
The last thing the Labour Party need is timid policies, a muddled message and the apologetic manner of a social worker.