Labour, the West Ham United of politics

The party that eschews the long ball.

As another less than stellar week for the Labour leadership draws to a close, it seems to me that the Labour Party has become -- and I mean this as a compliment -- the West Ham United of British politics, and this will be the saving (at least until the electorate get a say) of Ed Miliband.

The Tory Party, by contrast, act like the trigger happy Premier League Chairman for whom only continuous success is an acceptable norm. Look at the grumbles from inside the party at David Cameron requiring a coalition to get into government. It's like they won the FA Cup but the impatient man at the top thinks the league is the only prize worth having. No wonder William Hague described his party as acting like "an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide".

Not so the Labour Party where in the fine traditions of the Hammers winning appears to be rather less important to the members than playing in the right way. And good on them for it

Much has been written about Labour's reluctance to ditch its leaders, no matter how unelectable they might appear to anyone standing back from the fray far enough to see the woods from the trees (which is 83 per cent of the UK population according to a recent YouGov poll). This is often put down to cowardice, often from the likely heir apparent who knows that the assassin wielding the knife seldom ends up on the throne.

But actually, I think it's more to do with principle.

Looking at it through the other end of the telescope, the name of the most electorally successful PM in Labour's history was booed and heckled when Ed Miliband dropped the "Blair" word into his speech at the last Labour Party conference.

Sure, most Labour members can cite a long list of achievements during the Blair years of which they are rightly proud. But at the end of the day, they still think Blair was more concerned with winning in itself than with winning in the right way. As Matthew d'Ancona described it in the London Evening Standard earlier this week:

One of Tony Blair's many strengths as he plotted Labour's return to office as Opposition leader between 1994 and 1997 was an unshakeable awareness that the electorate's anxieties must be addressed before any progress can be made. This remained at the heart of his politics until -- almost literally -- they carted him out of Downing Street.

This is a view of leadership I suspect many Labour Party members would recognise, but would be reluctant to endorse. They see Blair as adopting the long ball strategy that might win a few matches but isn't playing the game as it was first intended. And unless you're playing politics with the ball on the ground and with passing at a premium, you'll never have their admiration.

Whatever his foibles and weaknesses, Ed is undoubtedly playing by their rules. Just like West Ham, who have had just 14 managers in their 116 year history, Labour doesn't change the man at the top if he's playing the Beautiful Game, whatever the results on the field may be.

And I have total respect for Labour for doing that. Though they might want to remember that West Ham no longer play in the Premier League. Or that, under their current manager, have given up playing the Beautiful Game in an effort to get back there.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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