Why the left should aspire to a "property owning democracy"

There is a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one.

The aspiration to home ownership, once seen as part of British national identity itself, is in trouble.  Recent research by Cambridge University suggests that a marked drop in mortgaged home ownership both pre-dates the financial crash and is likely to continue long into the future. That won’t come as news to those trying to become first-time buyers, struggling in a mortgage market where the size of required deposits rises sharply, even as house prices themselves stay largely the same. It also won’t come as news to those families who have contributed to the rapid growth in the private rented sector, often struggling in a market which has seen neither consistent improvements in protections for tenants or in the quality of available homes. 

Some on the left of British politics probably welcome this potential long-term shift in Britain’s housing market. Many left-leaning commentators have long argued that the British have been overly committed to ownership, neglecting the possibilities of long-term renting associated with many European city environments. They also remember the battles against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to create a “property-owning democracy” in the 1980s, where the belief that home ownership helped to shape a more conservative political orientation was shared by both critics and admirers alike

This would be a mistake, however. As an IPPR report that will be published later this week argues, home ownership should remain a primary commitment for British housing policy. We should dedicate ourselves to identifying new policy solutions to make it easier, not harder, for the people of this country to own a home.

There are two primary reasons why it is important to restore the possibilities of home ownership to as broad a section of the population as is compatible with economic stability.

 First, home ownership has always been the way in which most British families put down roots in their communities. Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live. It provides a sense of belonging that is not generative only of a conservative political mentality but one which allows the development of a palpable sense of agency, with individuals and their families becoming able to commit to the good of their neighbours as well as to improve the quality of their own lives. The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon. There is, in other words, a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one and we would be foolish to overlook it.

Second, home ownership remains a widely shared aspiration of the people of Britain. Despite all of the difficulties with mortgages and affordability, most people in Britain long to be able to shape their own domestic environments, to choose their own wallpaper, to paint their own front doors. Narrowing the availability of this option only to the well-off - essentially to those with large enough deposits or with parents willing to pay the costs themselves -   would be to further segregate an already excessively segregated society. If home ownership was to become the housing equivalent of those “Olympic car lanes” that now blight London - available only to a very select few - then we would live in a less, not more, desirable society. The left should never welcome a development that enables the rich to continue to access a good to which most people aspire and to deny that right to others.

The decline in home ownership might not be easily reversible in the short-term. It would need significant reform of our mortgage market and, even more importantly, a substantial increase in the construction of new houses. Nonetheless, if we care about living in an integrated society, where people feel in control of their own lives and connected to their neighbourhoods, it is a good to which we should remain committed.

"Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live." Photograph: Getty Images.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser