Why Miliband needed his "Bloody Sunday"

Sunday's headlines were awful. Ed Miliband should be a happy man.

Yesterday's terrible newspaper headlines were the best thing to happen to Ed Miliband since he was elected leader. On the surface it may have appeared the old adage of no such thing as bad publicity was being tested to destruction; brothers at war, big beasts on the rampage.

But headlines come and they go. And the medium and even long term implications of Ed's "Bloody Sunday" may not turn out to be wholly negative.

For a start, it has nailed the "flat-earthers". The cosy myth that beyond the Westminster bubble, Ed is loved, his party is loved and all that is required is for everyone to "keep calm and carry on" for Labour to prevail, has been exploded. The full extent of Labour's challenge was brought into sharp, brutal relief over 250 PLP breakfast tables. Denial is no longer an option.

Good. Miliband's failure to connect with the electorate is neither mysterious nor insoluble. The public have been told by the man who seeks their endorsement as prime minister it is too early to begin to set out his policy agenda; thanks, but he will stick with his blank page. They have also been told he believes it is unwise to set out a clear political agenda. To do so, at this stage, would represent a "false choice". And they have been told he does not intend to define his personal agenda. Hugging huskies and riding around on the back of hoodies is not for him. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that having been told next to nothing about Miliband's policy, political or personal programme over half of Labour voters don't know what the man stands for.

But at least now there is no place to hide. Everyone knows that inside the Westminster bubble, outside the Westminster bubble, and on the planet Zog, Miliband has yet to cut through with the electorate. And that means he will now have to adopt a new strategy to ensure he does. It may not work. It could be doomed to total, ignominious failure. But at least Miliband and the rest of us won't die wondering.

The second positive is that the Labour Party will now rally round. It is a strange reflex held over from the darks days of the Blair/Brown danse macabre. Blair would stumble, the party would rise up, Brown would pounce. Then, as soon as the press pack scented blood, the party would recoil, Gordon would beat a hasty retreat, and Tony would breathe easy once more.

Ed will now have his own breathing space. The briefings will, temporarily, relent. The mutterings of discontent will turn to cheers; just wait for the manic waving of order papers that will follow Ed's triumph at PMQs this Wednesday.

It will come at a good time. The run up to party conference was always going to be important, and his team had already planned to use the period to set out a clearer narrative to bind together themes such as the "squeezed middle" and "jilted generation". Again, there is no guarantee they will seize the opportunity. But at least they will now have room to work with.

And there is one final, crucial positive. Yesterday marks the beginning of a slow political rapprochement between Cain and Abel. Don't believe the anti-hype. The leadership election rent Ed and David Miliband asunder. Their split was no psychodrama. It was human, and harsh and real.

But both men are pragmatists. And on Sunday they saw, perhaps for the first time, the damage that would be done to both of them if they allowed their divisions to become characterised as Blair v Brown Round 2. In fairness, both men saw too the potential damage it would do to the party they both fought over.

So it will start with a briefing. About a lunch or a dinner. Maybe a family event. Then a photo. Possibly a joint appearance at a conference to address an issue of mutual concern. And it will culminate either in David's departure from front-line politics, or, more likely, his return to the shadow cabinet.

The process will be primarily political. And the extent to which it will reflect a genuine rebuilding of their shattered personal relationship no one will truly know, probably not even the brothers themselves.

But the hatchet will be buried. There feud silenced. Blair and Brown's own psychodrama confirmed as one for the ages.

And it doesn't mean Ed will not ultimately be toppled. Nor that David will ultimately succeed him. But the two events will not be born out of a vendetta.

All for the price of a couple of bad headlines? I'm sure, on reflection, Ed would settle for that.

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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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