Time out with Nick Cohen

Why Kate Barker, the bogey woman, who wants to build over the green belt might just create a country

The basics any government has to provide if it hopes to be popular are food, water, security and shelter. Food is so cheap that obesity is common among the poor, while Marie Antoinettish fads for organic and against GM food insult the world's hungry while amusing the wealthy. As floods engulf the southern lowlands, water is hardly a problem at the moment, although the unpredictable effects of global warming may make it so one day. Whether you believe the fall in the official crime figures is genuine or not, no one, not even Daily Mail readers, believes that life is as insecure in Britain as it is in Iraq or South Africa. But the cost of shelter is so exorbitantly high that decent housing has switched from being an essential to a luxury.

It is a sign of how the middle-aged and middle class dominate public life that the house-price inflation of the past decade was celebrated for so long by the property sections of the press. Real prices have doubled to seven times the average wage since Labour came to power. The average first-time buyer is having 19 per cent of his or her income taken up with repayments - and in London and other hot spots he or she is spending far more. People have taken extraordinary gambles - borrowed six times their salary, committed themselves to 50-year mortgages and burdened themselves with "interest-only" loan payments that leave the capital untouched - simply to get into an apparently unstoppable market.

Many pressures have forced the Brown government to say "enough" - including the pressure on MPs from desperate constituents - but chief among them is the work of Kate Barker, a jolly economist with old-fashioned priorities, who more than anyone else has rammed home the scale of the crisis. To simplify in a manner that would appall her, Barker said that to get any kind of sanity back into the market Britain needs to build a minimum of 70,000 and a maximum of 120,000 additional homes a year. We must also build thousands more social homes - the number of which has actually declined by 9 per cent under a Labour government. If providing private and public housing means building on the green belt, so be it. If it means overriding local authorities and local objections, that's tough.

For a mild-mannered member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, these are radical recommendations that will transform England, and Barker has come to terms with becoming a bogey woman. A strange alliance of environmentalists and Tories accuse her of wanting to concrete over flood plains and thus ensure a repeat of the misery of the past few days. She is getting used to receiving "a large and often rather aggressive postbag wrongly accusing me of bringing a destructiveness equal to the Luftwaffe".

We share a pot of coffee in the Bank and she reflects on her transformation from a backroom adviser to business and governments to a public figure. Her work itself was a transformation. Gordon Brown was worried about the housing market long before the media caught up with him, but the Treasury's original concern was about monetary not social policy. Brown's question to Barker was whether the national obsession with property and membership of the euro were incompatible. Changes in the price of mortgages set by central bankers could have vast and unintended effects on the British economy. Low interest rates in the eurozone could fuel asset bubbles and consumer spending splurges - of the type we have been living through. High interest rates could trigger a wider recession - of the type we may soon be living through.

Target of abuse

But the longer Barker looked at the housing market, the more she worried about the poor stuck on council house and housing association waiting lists, the families stuck in mean and cramped flats and couples who want to have children but can't afford the space to house them. "I decided we had to increase the housing supply," she says.

This simple and humane thought has made Barker the target of vitriolic abuse and not only from letter writers to Threadneedle Street. Friends of the Earth dressed up an essentially reactionary assault on her in the modish language of anti-corporatism. Barker was the tool of her old employer, the Confederation of British Industry, its officers alleged; blindly following the boss class's agenda to "elevate the needs of businesses and the goal of economic growth at the expense of the environment and the views of the public".

One of the myths of British politics is that there is a united "voluntary sector". In truth, there is an unbridgeable divide between supporters of social justice and supporters of the environment. Senior figures in homeless charities privately told me they saw Friends of the Earth as a club for selfish nimbies. But Barker gives me a more sophisticated argument against the environmentalists. They talk, she says, as if a large chunk of the population of England doesn't exist.

"We're going to have a rise over the next ten years in England's population," she explains. "If we build less than adequately, people will be forced to share houses, there will be more overcrowding in London and we will have to do something draconian about second homes. But whatever we do, people will still be there. My critics say that extra homes will create more rubbish and use more water. But actually people will still be using water and producing rubbish if we build more homes or not. The only real environmental question is whether we turn more land over to building."

Like Friends of the Earth, Conservative commentators, notably on the Daily Telegraph, are as keen as the nominally leftish environmentalists on stopping building on greenfield sites, and they, too, accuse Barker of following a rigged agenda: but this time the alleged fixing of the terms of reference hasn't been done by the CBI but by Gordon Brown. They ask why he ordered Barker to look at supply rather than demand. If she wanted to know why house prices have shot up, she should have examined the effects of immigration and family break up. Surely, his instructions were a transparent attempt to cover up the failure of Labour to control Britain's borders and protect marriage.

Upsetting the locals

Barker was born in Stoke-on-Trent and has spent most of her adult life as a Home Counties commuter. For all her political influence, she is not a political animal and is unused to the accusatory nature of metropolitan politics. "Well," she says, when I put the Conservative criticisms to her, "the biggest pressure on housing is the increasing demand of elderly people for homes because they're living so much longer." She pauses and shoots me a look which reads, "What do you want me to do, call for euthanasia?"

The one charge against her which is undeniable is that she will further weaken our enfeebled local government. It's not that she's against planning; on the contrary, she says her critics get her hopelessly wrong when they say that she hasn't thought about the danger of floods and global warming. She has. But the effect of Barker's recommendations will be that local people won't be able to stop developments on their doorsteps. Too many councils, she tells me, don't want to see their towns grow because they don't see the advantages of growth. To which the only reply is that, of course they don't, because 80 per cent of tax revenues are taken by central government. Councillors may as well support local objectors because newcomers won't provide them with the taxes to improve public services. As I listen to her, I realise that she is trapping local government in a spiral of decline. But apart from having less local freedom, I want to know how else the England Barker and Brown aim to create will look.

First, she says, its urban areas will grow at the edges. Her main advice to the Prime Minister is to expand existing towns and cities to allow people to live close to where they work - although, as she grimly admits, the housing shortage is so great we may have to expand cities and build new towns as well.

Second, after decades of councils selling off playing fields, she hopes urban England will be greener. "I feel very strongly that you must have usable green space in cities. I'm always rather distressed about bits of green space that say 'No ball games' on them. I realise ball games annoy people but kids have got to get out. I'm very troubled by the sight of children with nowhere to play. That, I think, is a real social evil."

She then turns the question back at me and asks what England will look like if we don't follow her recommendations. There's now every incentive for people who live in big houses to stay there. Because they think prices are going to keep on rising and the supply of housing will carry on being constrained, there is, indeed, every incentive for the wealthy to grab as much housing as they can, regardless of whether they need it or not. If nothing changes, young people with money will carry on throwing every penny they can raise at property because they fear being left behind, while vast numbers who can't match their borrowing will suffer. Many will be poor, but if the poor can get into council and housing association homes, they won't be so badly off. Working- and middle-class families, however, will be caught in an hourglass property market. Beneath them will be council tenants, who may be in reasonable accommodation, above them will be the wealthy, who will certainly be in reasonable accommodation. They, however, will feel the squeeze.

"So if we don't build, housing will be incredibly unfairly shared. If we do, I think England will be a nicer place to live. The feeling of congestion that we all have is partly because we all live quite uncomfortably. I hope we can find an easier feeling and a less congested feeling, and create towns and cities where there is green space and room to breathe."

For all the dampening of the spirit the weather has brought this summer, that seems to me to be a vision of a country worth living in.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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