Len McCluskey addressing TUC conference. Photo: Getty
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If we want political change, trade unions must be the real opposition to the coalition

The people who are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s cuts need the protection of good, community based activism. If the unions can provide this, it will pay a handsome political dividend.

Trade unions and council estates have much in common. Both are generally inhabited by low-earners , both enjoy high levels of camaraderie, and both boast high percentages of strong women who act as a silent, and often forgotten, backbone. The general election is only 13 months away, and the underlying narrative will be one of forgotten backbones. The focus of the election battle will again be on the scramble for middle class votes, in a pattern repeated since Labour embarked upon  a quest to evict the Tories at all costs from an area kindly marked out by successive editors of the Murdoch press as “the centre ground”. The lessons of abandoning core voters has manifested itself spectacularly in recent times, contributing to Labour’s by-election defeat in Bradford West to Respect in 2012.

For those thriving on politics of fear and division, areas of poverty have long since been fertile recruiting grounds, attracting the disenfranchised, and misleading the poorly educated. Parties like the BNP and UKIP have exploited these areas, sowing seeds of discontent, and spreading a message of conflict, despite most people only voting BNP or UKIP out of a desperation to be listened to. It’s easy to dismiss such voters as being politically inactive. I grew up on council estates, and can testify that these places have some of the most politically impassioned people you could possibly encounter. They care deeply about society, housing, health and education, about fighting for a fairer future for their kids. The truth isn’t that these people have nothing to say, rather that disconnected, beige, professional politicians in Westminster choose not to listen.

Labour’s early history tells a tale of a party designed to listen. Unions formed Labour precisely to oppose the exclusionary tendencies of the Tories, and to provide avenues for the poorest people to become politically active. The party of today squirms awkwardly at the mention of its radical heritage, offering in reply only a homogenised mixture of lightly rinsed austerity policies aimed at keeping right wing tabloids and trade unions simultaneously quiet, alongside bland platitudes about future reform. It is no longer a voice of the poor, of organised workers, nor is it a voice of opposition to the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Recent comments by Len McKluskey underlined this, when he challenged Ed Miliband to provide “real alternatives to austerity”. While I agree with Len, I would go further by challenging unions to step forward and fill the vacuum left by Labour’s failure to provide meaningful opposition to this wretched coalition. The working poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised need to be shown there is hope, that there are people with the means, and the motivation to help. It’s abundantly clear that Labour won’t heed Len’s call to arms, so unions need to take the initiative, and must do so in two ways.

Firstly, call Labour’s bluff. The party is incredibly reliant on union funding, and catatonically devoted to the power of free markets. Unions should be presenting a united front, using their combined financial power in the “free market” of political funding to force Labour back toward the path for which it was originally constructed.

And if the party leadership continue to expect unquestioning finance for very little return? 

Disaffiliate. Direct that considerable financial backing towards a party that will represent the aims of the working poor and organised labour.

Secondly, unions need to organise in the poorest communities. They need to work together, possibly via the TUC, to establish a solid, campaigning presence in areas where austerity has bitten the hardest, and the gap between “haves” and “have nots” is widest. The disenfranchised need credit unions, job shops, youth projects for kids. The elderly need assistance with daily tasks and transport. Soup kitchens and food banks need money, volunteers, and food. Those in debt, those suffering the harshest attacks of Iain Duncan Smith’s war of benefit attrition need counselling, they need advocacy. They need the protection of good, community based activism, and it will pay a handsome political dividend.

 Women in these areas, usually silent, exclusively magnificent in their devotion to their family’s survival, need the support of the unions’ equality agenda. Just as importantly, they need neighbourhoods where they can raise children in a climate of hope, solidarity, and aspiration, instead of fear, resignation, and detachment. Most important of all, they need to be heard.

For many women, the mantra they live by is “If you want something done properly, do it yourself.”

I challenge Len McKluskey, Paul Kenny, Mick Whelan, Mark Sewotka, and other union leaders to follow this mantra, as well as to listen, as they would have Miliband listen. Lay down the challenge by all means comrades, but please, if you want political change to be implemented properly, go and do it yourselves.

Karl Davis is a writer, stand up comedian, train driver, and trade union activist and advocate. He lives in Hull and is married with two young sons.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.