George Osborne meets a couple at the Berkeley Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne's housing plans are too little, too late

After four years of empty rhetoric, the best the Chancellor could do was to recycle an announcement from 2012 with a commitment to fewer homes.

Yesterday George Osborne announced the government’s intention to build a Garden City in Ebbsfleet and to extend the Help to Buy scheme until 2020. Had this been 2010, the Chancellor might have been able to expect some praise for his decision to announce the creation of the former. A rapid move would have been deserving of some recognition. Instead, in 2010, the first decision ministers took was to cut the budget for affordable homes by 60 per cent - a choice which effectively cut off at the knees affordable housebuilding.

A year on, and the then housing minister, Grant Shapps, wrote an article on the merits of the idea of Garden Cities. It’s an interesting piece but readers will have been entitled to ask "where’s the beef?" since there was no policy or action behind it, just talk. Six months later, we were treated to some more warm words on Garden Cities but this time in a speech by the Prime Minister who promised a "consultation" later that year.

Another six months later, and this time it was the turn of the Deputy Prime Minister to talk in glowing terms about the principles of Garden Cities - he went further promising a "prospectus". Then, for the whole of 2013, despite the number of homes built slipping to the lowest peacetime level since the 1920s, the government went quiet on Garden Cities.

Earlier this year, we learned that there was a secret plan to build Garden Cities in at least two locations which was being suppressed by David Cameron who was running scared of his own backbenchers despite a national housing crisis.

Back to the present day, and George Osborne has announced the government’s intention to build a Garden City of 15,000 homes in Ebbsfleet. An announcement which could hardly seem less impressive after nearly four years of empty rhetoric and suppressed reports until it became clear that the government had already announced a scheme at Ebbsfleet a year and a half ago to build 20,000 homes, 5,000 more than Osborne announced yesterday.

The Chancellor also had nothing to say about the principles on which Garden Cities are founded. They include strong vision and leadership, provision of mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are affordable for ordinary people which includes a strong element of social housing and a strong commitment to tackling climate change and access to green space for local communities. Compare these with the record of David Cameron who has shown no leadership whatsoever in tackling the housing crisis, who has all but abandoned social housing and appears intent on its destruction. And whose record on tackling climate change can be summed by his own statement to "get rid of all the green crap". One does not hold out much hope for the true principles of Garden Cities being implemented.

On the second part of the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, the extension of Help to Buy, Labour has always been clear that we support help for first time-buyers. But soaring house prices and a shortage of homes mean the very first-time buyers the scheme should be helping are finding it ever harder to afford a home of their own. George Osborne has claimed that the scheme will build up to 120,000 homes, but the National Audit Office has said it cannot confirm the government’s assumptions of how many homes will be built because ministers have failed to robustly assess its impact.

As Ed Balls said on Saturday, we need a Help to Build policy to boost housing supply and tackle the cost-of-living crisis, alongside a reformed Help to Buy scheme. We want to see guarantees that help small and medium-sized builders to access finance – through the banks – to get them building. Failure to tackle this crisis will mean home ownership will remain out of reach of many low and middle-income earners, rents will continue to rise faster than wages and waiting lists will grow ever longer.

George Osborne’s announcement yesterday on Ebbsfleet will not be seen as a sign of success but one of failure. After four years of empty rhetoric, the best the Chancellor could do was to recycle an announcement from 2012 with a commitment to fewer homes. To tackle the housing shortage, so central to the cost-of-living crisis, we need a government that is prepared to take real action, not just talk. That’s why Labour has committed to getting 200,000 homes a year built by 2020, including by building a new generation of new towns and garden cities.

Ed Miliband has appointed Sir Michael Lyons to lead an independent housing commission with one aim: delivering a roadmap of how the next Labour government can begin addressing the housing shortage immediately on entering office. A One Nation Labour Government won’t wait four years - we’ll get started on day one and we’ll show the leadership and determination to tackle the housing shortage, address the cost-of-living crisis and meet the aspirations of people across our country.

Emma Reynolds is shadow housing minister and MP for Wolverhampton North East.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser