Who lives in a house like this? Not you, pauper. Photo: Getty Images
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What hope is there for Generation Rent when a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords?

It’s no secret that, as far as the housing market goes, the millennial generation have been (and this is the technical term) royally screwed over. While members of previous generations appear to have bought houses for the current price of a packet of crisps, lounged around inside them for a couple of decades and then sold them for around a 500 per cent profit, we now wring our hands at the news that not a single area in the country has seen wages and house price inflation remain aligned. In the London borough of Hackney, the average salary should be £131,924 if it was to match up with property pricing, according to Shelter (Spoiler: it isn't). Needless to say, very few of the twentysomething interns working their bollocks off for free lunches that we know are expecting to make that sort of money any time soon.

Amelia Gentleman's dispiriting Guardian piece on the Hackney house price bubble gave a snapshot of how galling it is to search for a house in the borough even when you have large cash reserves thanks to the bank of mum and dad. For those of us without that privilege, our hopes of owning our own homes, especially in London but also in many other areas of the country, have gone from measly to non-existent. As the newspapers have been doggedly making us aware for the past five years or so, we really are becoming 'generation rent'. Not that rent is particularly affordable for young people either, you understand. That would just be silly.

Skyrocketing rents and housing ladders with the first rung sawn off have led to what we might euphemistically term ‘innovative living’. Innovative living - especially in London, where the cost of living as a student now outstrips the cost of living like a king in our respective hometowns - takes the form of situations like couch-surfing, room-sharing and cupboard-inhabiting. One of us genuinely lived in the other’s airing cupboard for a month when awaiting enough salary to accrue from her full-time job to pay a rental deposit, and that was the best option of three. Mere months before, we had lived together in what could kindly be described as a Kentish Town hovel, complete with mouse infestation, missing windows, peeling salmon-coloured wallpaper and a bathroom shared with the flat below which sometimes contained dog poo. This was hardly unusual by the standards of our friends at the time. More than a handful genuinely described the place as ‘charming’.

Yesterday, we were on Twitter moaning about a mould problem that one of us is currently experiencing due to poor outside guttering and porous brick walls. It has taken the landlord three months and counting to respond to the problem, but the overwhelming response online was that three months is nothing. We spent all day being regaled with tales of unsympathetic landlords who told tenants to open their windows, buy a dehumidifier, or simply stop "breathing too much".


@VagendaMagazine More mould for collection! My bedroom in last place. Landlord did nothing. Health risk right? pic.twitter.com/f1iaplBuMw

— frankie mullin (@frankiemullin) February 18, 2014


We were inundated with horror stories and photographs of people's damp and mould problems (one wall even had an actual live mushroom in it), all of which were occurring in rented accommodation and which their landlords were failing to sort out. Then an irate landlord chipped in to tell us to open our windows and that 'you are the sort of crap tenant that every landlord dreads'. If pointing out poor living conditions doesn't make you a crap tenant, then telling your landlord that they're everything that wrong with this country certainly does, but it was difficult after that not conversation not to consider buy-to-let landlords the scum of the earth. Such was this particular one's lack of concern at our breathing problems.


@VagendaMagazine I slept with a ring of salt around my bed at uni as our house was infested with damp loving slugs

— emma (@me_emma_t) February 18, 2014


In describing such living standards, we don’t intend to beg for sympathy. Instead, we hope to illuminate how dangerously normalised this sort of situation has become. One London renter said that she hadn't lived in a single flat that hadn't had significant mould issues, despite having moved seven times. Space-wise, living rooms have become a rarity in the capital, where they are now routinely converted by money-grabbing landlords into extra bedrooms, sometimes with the use of paper-thin plywood partitions. Young people - and that includes people in their thirties - are shoved into these overpopulated, under-maintained enclosures like so many sardines in tin cans. Often the landlords know they don’t have to clear those growing patches of damp, mend that cracked piece of glass, fix the dodgy electrics or install proper fire alarms. There will always be another desperate tenant willing to fill the previous one’s place. In fact, the owners of these buy-to-let places can afford to be choosy: just cast your eye over the number of rooms going on Gumtree that specifically stipulate ‘NO DSS’.


@VagendaMagazine @ElleEmmie @toni_oni My 10 yo son has lived in 7 diff houses because landlords keep selling from under us.

— Aoife Walsh (@AoifeMPWalsh) February 18, 2014


It’s difficult to believe that this state of affairs won’t go on for ever, but clearly something has to give. We are in the midst of a housing crisis and yet little is being done to help those trapped in rented accommodation with no hope of becoming first time buyers. All that Help to Buy - a scheme overseen by a parliament of which a third are buy-to-let landlords - seems to be doing is creating a housing boom. Meanwhile, we are forced to look at broadsheet lifestyle articles in which minted property developers show us the design potential that exists in former social housing. 

As even the right-wing media begins to highlight empty properties left to rot throughout the UK - either abandoned by ridiculously wealthy owners or deliberately kept unoccupied to drive up rent prices nearby - it’s clear that the tide is turning, however slowly. These were of course the same newspapers that campaigned against squatting, but even they seem to be finding the horrific waste of valuable housing space distasteful. Meanwhile, among the younger generation, the anger is building and festering, the dry rot is setting in, and eventually it's going to burst through the wall. 

"I've never had somewhere that was 'home'", said one twentysomething, and God do we empathise. But we all need to remember that the sadness at not having somewhere to really call home, that tight little knot of anxiety about the future that resides in our stomachs, can be incredibly powerful when effectively channelled. We need to stop behaving as though we're resigned to living in mouldy shitholes, and get angry and stay angry, because, in their big houses with their buy-to-let incomes, the people in power realise how angry we are. 

PS. Here's the mushroom:


@VagendaMagazine surely this HAS to be the winner? Fully formed mushroom.. pic.twitter.com/SmAiLjsejc

— Ellen (@EllenRhian) February 18, 2014

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.