Politicians should build on Labour's plans to help renters. Photo: Getty
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Why Labour's help for "generation rent" is not a radical enough offer

While Ed Miliband's plans this week are welcome, much more needs to be done to ease the increasingly hostile renting and housing conditions faced by a generation.

According to Labour, up to 9m renters would save more than £600 each in the next parliament under plans announced this week by Ed Milliband to ban letting agent fees and cap rent increases for longer-term tenants. While hardly earth-shattering, this is at least a start for those both renting and looking to save in order to get on the home ownership ladder in the future.

Indeed, if politicians are in any doubt as to the financial hardship and frustration the hostile housing market is causing "generation rent", then Saturday’s protest (with the corresponding hashtag #MarchForHomes) in London on the lack of affordable housing gives some indication of the difficulties faced by this group. For despite all the charms of the city and Home Counties, the fact is that if you find yourself single, in an average graduate position with a salary of around £25,000 - £30,000, you’re going to have to be saving for an awfully long time to afford even a modest property, let alone afford the exorbitant monthly rents that are set to continue to rise much faster than wages.

In London today, for example, you would be very lucky to get a two bedroom flat near Streatham station (Zone 3) for around £300,000. If you’re a 25-year-old single, don’t have the Bank of Mum and Dad to back you up, and are able to save £100 a month, you’ll have to wait (if you’re starting from scratch) until you’re 50 to put a 10 per cent deposit down on a property at this price. Even if you’re able to get a rare 95 per cent mortgage, chances are you’ll be 37 or 38 until you’re ready to take the plunge.

These figures also assume that house prices will stay static, which they almost certainly will not. In order to keep up with rising prices, savers will have to progressively increase the amount they put away  by no means easy given that wages for young workers have fallen more than any other group between 2008 and 2014, while house prices in the capital have rocketed by 25 per cent between the second quarter of 2013 and the same period in 2014. With such grim prospects on the horizon regarding "getting on" in life, as our politicians so often phrase it, it’s no wonder many workers feel the recovery hasn’t yet arrived for them.

Might shared ownership offer a way forward for locked-out young workers? For the unitiated, shared ownership offers a halfway house between renting and buying, with buyers able to buy a proportion of the property for a lower amount, paying the rest in rent. To many, this might seem a reasonable compromise, yet the handful that come on the market attract fierce competition and often go to families with children deemed (not unreasonably) to be in greater need than singles.

Put simply, not enough homes are being built.

In truth, the political powers that be have known this for years, yet under the current coalition fewer homes than ever have seen the light of day. Between 2012 and 2013 for instance just 109,370 homes were constructed. In accordance with such pitiful numbers, it’s no surprise that in places in high demand like London, prices skyrocket as more and more workers are pulled to the Big Smoke.

Furthermore, our housing crisis not only affects those who wish to buy, but also those renting. The logic here is similar: rents increase as tenants in a desirable area increase and the housing supply fails to meet the corresponding demand. This problem is arguably exacerbated by the lack of rental controls and legislation protecting tenants from steep increases. In other words, tenants are at the mercy of their landlords in relation to prices. Although at last it looks like Labour might be beginning to do something about this, its plans won't be enough.

It’s all good and easy to say "build more affordable houses" but how can this be done? The housing charity Shelter proposes a number of solutions. The first is an increase in direct government investment, which Shelter says has a track record of being effective and could be achieved while honouring national debt reduction commitments. A second possible solution would be to increase greenbelt flexibility, allowing developers of various sizes to build on land previously protected. This would be effective in cities too; 19 of the 32 London boroughs have greenbelt land. It’s also worth noting that in introducing this policy, Britain would not become an "urban jungle" as some suggest, and Britain’s countryside would still be maintained

While these and other solutions sound viable, is there the political will? Voters, while supporting increased housing, generally do not support expansion in their backyard. This risk of public anger perhaps helps explain the reluctance to date of elected representatives to really get behind housing projects beyond the occasional rhetorical noises of support. This presents something of a conundrum for our politicians: support housing expansion in their constituency and risk unpopularity with voters, or do nothing and increase pressure on hard-pressed workers.

Regardless of risk, politicians really must see the bigger picture here and build on the plans announced by Labour today. Our continued failure to build more affordable homes has wrought serious economic, social and cultural consequences, and will continue to do so unless something is done. By grasping the nettle on this issue and addressing a concern for millions in the UK, a post-2015 government could go some way to restoring confidence in a system many feel let down by, and reap the rewards at the 2020 election as a result.

But will any party be brave enough?

David Binder blogs at thoughtsofbinder.wordpress.com and can be found on twitter at @davidpaulbinder

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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