Mostly flying below the mainstream political and media radar, 2016 saw a grassroots campaign, run on a shoe-string, successfully challenge a major plank of government policy. Throughout the year, Axe the Housing Act maintained a flow of lively demonstrations, big public meetings, lobbying operations and local activities that culminated in the Tories back-tracking on their agenda to fully privatise the UK’s housing system, while driving working class families into poverty and out of their communities. In the process, thousands of people, many of them new to politics, got involved in discussions about building an alternative to the tyranny of the housing market.
Key elements of the Housing and Planning Act are now in abeyance. ‘Pay to Stay’ - an attempt to impose a 15% tax on council tenants - and the extension of the Right to Buy paid for by selling-off empty council homes, have been shelved. But the threat remains, particularly the crass intention of scrapping secure tenancies. Caught in policy over-reach and post-Brexit turmoil, the government is seeking to make councils and increasingly corporate-minded housing associations do its dirty work, while it goes back to the drawing board in an attempt to address the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes. The campaign against the Act will continue, alongside demands for investment in council housing, more rights for private renters and the critical issue of the use of public land to build the homes we need.
Calls for a more enlightened housing policy have been echoed by charities, the British Association of Social Workers and religious leaders. Labour Party Conference passed a motion committing to opposing and repealing the Act, but overall, the response of the labour movement has been patchy. While Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been unequivocal in their support for Axe the Housing Act, other MPs have been more muted. Unions have generally been supportive, although there’s little sign of the kind of linked-up, national approach to housing that would reflect the seriousness of the issue for many union members. Even Momentum, which nominally supports the campaign, has appeared reluctant to get fully involved at national level. At the ‘The World Transformed’ event in Liverpool, housing was treated as a peripheral issue by the organisers and the Axe the Housing Act campaign was marginalised.
There’s no doubt that housing is now a major political concern, not just in Labour’s heartlands, but for increasing numbers of people who may not traditionally support the Party, particularly young voters (and their parents) who are most likely to be the victims of our dysfunctional housing policy. Actively fighting the Housing and Planning Act is an opportunity to highlight Tory failure, both inside and outside Parliament, while offering a real alternative and constructively engaging with those whose disillusionment with mainstream politics feeds UKIP and the far-right.
This failure to recognise the potential of campaigning on an issue of such importance for so many people is worrying and difficult to explain. Some Labour politicians may want to avoid drawing attention to the Blair/Brown governments’ record on housing between 1997 and 2010, or the continuing connivance of some Labour councils in privatisation in the name of ‘regeneration’. Others, even those on the left, still harbour illusions in housing associations, long after most of them departed from their role as ‘social’ landlords, something the Act will accelerate. There are probably some right wing Labour MPs who secretly agree with what the Tories are trying to do. Sadly, there are also some in the labour movement who still find it difficult to work in broad alliances without resorting to narrow tribal allegiances. There is a sense that Momentum feels uncomfortable with a campaign that it doesn’t fully control and is essentially working class in character.
Whatever the reasons, as with the NHS, history will judge us harshly if we fail to defend the housing progress won by previous generations and more importantly - extend them for the next. Public opinion is now firmly shifting towards the need to restore council housing to the policy mainstream, control private landlords and curb property speculators, ie, precisely the position of Jeremy Corbyn! Housing remains a political gift-horse the Labour Party is looking in the mouth.