THE FORTHCOMING general election is the most significant in my 55 year lifetime. It will shape our political future across a range of issues, including housing. As in other policy areas, there’s a clear choice ahead. If the Tories win, Johnson will propel the UK towards the brutality of the US housing model personified by Trump. Despite some important weaknesses in its position, Labour is offering at least some hope for a return to the more humane and sustainable housing system that was one of our great post-war achievements.
When it comes to housing, the prospect of becoming the 51st state is very real. My 2017 book, There's No Place: The American Housing Crisis and What It Means for the UK, describes some of the forces bringing the UK closer to the US.
That process has accelerated since and will intensify under a Johnson government. Trump has already made clear that the NHS should be up for grabs in any trans-Atlantic trade agreement. He’ll be thinking the same about council housing. There are numerous estates he and the vulture capitalists he represents would like to get their talons on.
Already we have the super-exploitative private rented sector being opened up to institutional investors and housing associations, so-called social landlords, getting involved in speculative investments. The financial and ideological source for a lot of this is the US. It should never be forgotten that Trump increased his inherited fortune as a property speculator and slumlord.
When he talked about North Korea and Greenland being great places to build apartments, he wasn’t joking. The antidote to this poison - and possibly the route to victory - is for Labour to make housing a key election issue. This is often talked about, but rarely done. When Labour led on housing in 1945, with the slogan “Let’s build the houses – quick”, they won, crushing a bombastic Tory leader trading on narrow, post-imperialist fantasies. The parallels are obvious.
Labour must campaign for a housing programme that embraces a broader vision of the type of society we want to live in. That means ditching the equivocation in its current policy and fully committing to a new generation of council housing - real council housing, not the fake imitations we’re seeing in some places. The reaction to Channel 4’s programme George Clarke’s Council House Scandal shows the potential. Over 200,000 people signed an online petition supporting the demand for 100,000 new council homes a year, for 30 years.
That’s the scale of ambition Labour needs, both to win the election and to escape the housing crisis. Council housing is the non-market, rented housing that works. As George Clarke’s documentary vividly captured, we are paying the price for decades of under-investment and denigration of something that Labour should be as proud of as it is of the NHS. But like the NHS, the whole labour movement must fight for it. The death of council housing has been prematurely announced many times, but it survives because it has given millions of working class people some security against the volatility of capitalism. That uncertainty is reaching new levels amidst Brexit.
Pledging that a Labour government would invest in more and better council housing is one way to offer real hope for the future.
» The Homes for All campaign has launched the Charter for Housing Action with a range of demands, including 100,000 new council homes a year, reform of housing associations and more rights for private renters. Copies available from email@example.com or at Labour Party conference.
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)