Labour still don’t have a clue

The opposition can keep telling themselves that Cameron is a closet Thatcherite – but it won’t make

What's going to stop Labour from winning the next election is that, six years in, they still don't know who and what they're fighting. And since the next election could be a lot sooner than 2015, this is the gift that keeps on giving for the right. Before Ed Miliband can convince the public about himself, he needs to be convincing about David Cameron – and that's never going to happen for as long as the left keep kidding only themselves that the Tory leader is a closet Thatcherite.

It's hard to see on the face of it what the evidence is for this piece of wishful groupthink. Even with a crypto-Keynesian like Ed Balls as shadow chancellor rather than the more Blairite figure of Alan Johnson, it's the scale of the economic consensus that ought to stagger us and not the, in truth, marginal cross-party divisions, which are hyped up for despatch box effect.

But then what else is there? Whatever the Guardian wistfully hopes about right-wing economics leading to heroin-dealing nurses, selling mush like the "big society" as a threat to voters is surely a fantasy too far. If even Tory MPs who approvingly spout "big society" platitudes can't put any details on the warm feelings, it's improbable that Tom Baldwin's going to.

At every turn the government is exactly what Cameron hoped it would be – liberal. It's liberal in its social mores, it's at least as windily green as Labour, and it's pro-European. Many on the Tory right would say it's unarguably been so ever since Cameron broke his "cast-iron guarantee" that there would be a referendum on Lisbon. Yet like it or not, topped up by 50 Lib Dem MPs, the coalition also inescapably seems to people uninterested in politics to be that bit more liberal than a Tory-only government would have looked and sounded. Insisting that the government is not what the public plainly thinks it is, is a strategy Labour can try, but why's it going to work?

You can't even hope for a Thatcherite tone from this regime. There hasn't yet been a fight that Cameron hasn't run away from: from an abject refusal to milk-snatch to being pistol-whipped by Mumsnet, this Prime Minister will limbo under any tabloid headline held in front of him. So all Labour is doing now is repeating Steve Hilton's Demon Eyes mistake. Telling voters what they know to be untrue – "this man is a ravenous right-wing ideologue" – makes Labour seem incredible, and not in the good way.

Instead of crying wolf and inevitably being caught out for doing so, why not take a leaf out of the Clinton playbook? If Labour wants to exacerbate Cameron's undoubted party management problems, why not triangulate? Why not explicitly offer him support for his most obviously progressive and liberal measures? That's the way to push the Tory right over the edge. And as things stand, it's only they who are going to unseat Cameron any time soon.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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