There’s a rat in my flat but the real vermin are those in charge of our housing policy

As wages have stagnated and millions languish in underpaid or unpaid work, rents have continued to rise, because the government refuses to impose controls on private landlords.

There is a rat in my flat. I hear it before I fall asleep, munching its way through the pile of stolen socks and apple cores it has stashed behind the washing machine. I have tried traps and poison but I’m informed that this is simply one of the hazards of living underground.

My little basement flat is full of mould and spiders and is accessible only through somebody else’s front hall, yet despite the recent rodent invasion, it is still by far the nicest of the nine different places I have lived in since I came to London six years ago. During that time, I have lived with drug addicts and violent strangers and with the constant stress of insecurity, knowing that at any point my friends and I might be turned out with minimal notice. I’ve not been in one place long enough to get to know my neighbours. I have shared space with roaches, rodents and flatmates’ stoner boyfriends, all of whom will eat your cheese if you don’t hide it. Now, for the first time, I have my own front door to shut and for this unutterable luxury I am paying well over half of my wages.

When I say luxury, I mean it. Unusually among my peer group, I will probably not have to move again to a smaller, more expensive place in the next six months. For “Generation Rent”, this is the equivalent of a penthouse with a chocolate hot tub.

To most people who are young, unemployed or living precariously from payslip to payslip, the housing crisis is not abstract. It is horribly real. It’s about whether you can afford to turn on the heating as the nights get colder. Until recently it was about choosing whether to live in awful, cramped conditions closer to work, or to trade a two-hour commute for enough space to swing an anarchist tract. But a great many people no longer get that choice.

With rip-off landlords raising rents and unscrupulous politicians cutting benefits, vermin is the least of a renter’s worries. Rents are rising uncontrollably across the country, especially in the capital, where the price of a roof over your head rose by 7.6 per cent last year alone. But those who rent know that landlords have us over a barrel and we have no other options. For most, a mortgage is a vanishing dream and, because of the combination of rising rents, falling wages and benefit cuts, many are being forced out of their homes –moving elsewhere if they can afford it; if they can’t, squatting on friends’ couches, or in hostels, or on the street.

As well as the rat, which I have nicknamed Stanley in the hope that humanising it will make me less likely to lie awake listening to it methodically eating the skirting board, my conscience has obliged me to share my home with a rotating cast of friends with nowhere else to go.

As wages have stagnated and millions languish in underpaid or unpaid work, rents have continued to rise, because the government refuses to impose controls on private landlords. Instead, housing benefit has covered the shortfall between wages and rent – in effect, a state subsidy for the property-owning classes, which is rising year on year despite the benefit cap. In 2013, the state will pay £23bn directly to landlords. Most new claimants of housing benefit are working; they just can’t earn enough to cover basic housing. Instead of reforming the system by imposing rent controls, the coalition is telling ordinary working people that they are lazy and grasping and turfing them out of their homes if they happen to have an extra room, under the terms of the punitive “bedroom tax”, which its dwindling number of advocates insist we call the “spare room subsidy”.

So who is it, in these desperate times, that the coalition has decided to help out? Secure property owners or desperate renters? Can you guess? Are you sick of the rhetorical questions yet? Instead of supporting ordinary people to stay in their homes, the coalition is providing another boost to the property market by subsidising first-time homebuyers under its Help to Buy scheme.

This would be a stupid way to manage the housing stock even if we weren’t at serious risk of another property bubble. As it is, one has to wonder if there were some funny fumes in the Chancellor’s constituency home, the sale of which made him a £400,000 profit last year. Even Lloyds Bank has warned of dire consequences if steps are not taken to reduce housing inequality.

Property, however, is no longer primarily about keeping people warm and dry. Britain’s financial recovery has been based on rising house prices, particularly in London, where the global super-rich are buying up mansions, leading the New York Times writer Michael Goldfarb to suggest London housing has become “a global reserve currency”.

The most common centre-left response is a call for more houses to be built. It’s a fine idea – a house-building programme would create jobs and make it easier for the lowwaged and unwaged to live with dignity in one of the richest nations in the world. But building houses takes time and re-electing a Labour opposition that has shown little willingness to stand up for the immediate needs of the British working class will take longer. The hundreds of thousands of homeless and “hidden homeless” in Britain need places to live in right now; the millions more who are living in overcrowded, unhealthy, insecure homes with no prospect of anything better need a lifeline. The wealthy investors who own the million homes that are standing empty in this country at any one time do not.

You can only put up with so much freeloading vermin. The rat and I were getting on tolerably until two nights ago, when it decided to climb into bed with me for a snuggle. At which point, I indulged in a scream worthy of a Hitchcock blonde and spent the rest of the night shivering with the light on, googling the price of cabinet members’ second homes and wondering how keeping yourself off the streets in one of the most prosperous cities in the world got so hard.

When did keeping yourself off the streets in London become so hard? Image: Getty

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.