Workhouse social policy

Shelter's Adam Sampson responds to Housing Minister Caroline Flint and her call to tie social housin

I, like many, woke up on Tuesday morning to hear new housing minister Caroline Flint's proposal to tie access to social housing to employment.

Although rumours about such a move had been circulating ever since last year's publication of the Hills report on social housing, no-one expected her to act just ten days into her tenure. Shelter responded by accusing her of signaling a return to workhouse social policy.

In truth, the link was made more for reasons of rhetoric than confidence in its historical accuracy; With the Poor Law in mind and with time to reflect, what is being proposed has much in common with the models of 400 years ago.

The introduction of the workhouse was one of Elizabeth I's last acts, refining and codifying the medieval systems of poor relief. It was based on two assumptions: the availability of work for everyone, and that the poor would be forced to take it up. Work linked to housing via the workhouse, provided for the relief of the employable poor, with those who could not work - "the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind" - taking refuge in the poorhouse or almshouses.

The following centuries saw further refinements and the creation of huge bureaucracies devoted to assessing a person's eligibility for food and housing. But the assumptions behind the system remained. At its root was a desire to separate the deserving from the undeserving. There was no general duty to help people because they were humans or citizens: rights were something to be earned, not things which were intrinsic.

Four centuries later, the same thinking is now being paraded as modern public service reform. Social housing, a resource rendered scarce by the failure of successive governments to invest in replacing stock sold off under right to buy, is now to be reserved for the deserving rather than the undeserving.

No matter that our remaining stock of social housing is largely in monotenure, sink estates with poor services, poor transport and little access to viable work, social housing residents are blamed for their lack of aspiration.

The remedy is a shock of the market: those who refuse, or fail, to convince administrators about their seriousness to find work, will be denied entry or evicted; those who succeed too well may be told they no longer need subsidised housing and are capable of fending for themselves in private renting. Only "the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind" will enjoy an unconditional guarantee of housing.

The flaws in this system are palpable. All the research from the UK and beyond indicates that the traditional lifetime guarantee of housing is one of the keys to combating poverty and helping the most vulnerable build their lives.

The difficulties in 21st century England have not arisen because of any increase in the fecklessness and laziness of social tenants. The issue is the residualisation of the social housing stock and the concentration of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society in discrete geographical areas. There is a real problem in social housing, but it is not of the tenants' making. The 400 year tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty is not one to which a truly modernizing Government should give house-room.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times