What would Red Ted make of Red Ed?

The Labour leader has nothing on his infamous namesake

The right-wing prints have been hysterical in their reaction to the fact that Ed Miliband may be mildly to the left of Tony Blair. "The new Labour leader, dubbed 'red Ed'," as the Mail on Sunday put it - yes, dubbed by papers like the MoS, not by anyone with the slightest sense of proportion.

It then went on to claim that the result was "hailed as a 'disaster'" by supporters of the former prime minister, although curiously none of them appeared to be willing to be named in the report. (Wasn't New Labour best when it was boldest? Anyway, I digress.)

I'm not sure whether the label "Red Ed" is just a handy stick with which to beat Miliband, or whether one particular historical allusion is intended (probably not, as I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere). I refer, of course, to "Red Ted" Knight, the former leader of Lambeth Council in the early 1980s, and a man who really did deserve the adjective.

He's still around - a local community website reported his vocal criticisms of the leader of Southwark council over cuts only two months ago ("Some may argue that being harangued by Ted Knight is a sign of political arrival," was the response of the councillor in question) - but his excesses seem to have been forgotten.

This is a shame, for although they may not have been terribly amusing for the people of Lambeth at the time, in retrospect the gestures of this "tightly knit group of politically motivated men and women", to paraphrase Harold Wilson, were frequently beyond satire. No cause was too extreme for Knight and his allies to espouse - naturally, they supported all the obvious ones - and their ideology remained as pure as the council's finances were chaotic.

Knight's successor as leader of Lambeth, Linda Bellos, was black, Jewish, working class, lesbian and Marxist, a remarkable - some might even say praiseworthy - combination, but one that Tory commentators had much fun with. However, after Labour's disastrous showing at the 1983 general election, Knight had handed those who wished to characterise the party as being overrun by loony lefties with an even greater gift. Many felt the result was cause for reflection and revaluation. Not Red Ted. "There can be no compromise with the electorate," he declared.

As the Independent reported after the Labour regime (a word I use advisedly) in Lambeth finally fell in 1994: "Knight once flew to Nicaragua, then ruled by the Sandinistas, at the ratepayers' expense to tell the bemused Latin Americans: 'I bring you greetings from the people of Lambeth and solidarity with your revolution.'" Well, I'm sure they were grateful.

According to the Guardian's Michael White, Miliband used to be known as Ted while at university. "Red Ted? That sounds cuddlier already," he concludes.

Given that moniker's past history, I'd say that was one for Miliband to avoid at all costs.

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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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