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

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change