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Does Labour have a woman problem?

The fate of Diane Abbott suggests it just might.

The latest Ucas figures find that ethnic minority students are one to two per cent less likely to get offers from the top universities than their white peers, even when you control for subject choice and A-Level grades.

A 2009 study by the Department of Work and Pensions found that ethnic minority jobseekers had to send 16 applications for a successful outcome against nine for white jobseekers. (And once again, that’s controlling for qualifications, cover letters, and all of the other bumpf that accompanies a job application.)

And in 1999, researchers at the  University of Wisconsin found that men and women were more likely to hire and give tenure to male applicants than female applicants. (And, as with both previous examples, CVs and applications were identical in all other aspects.)

The Labour party held two concurrent elections this summer. In one, in London, an anti-austerity candidate from the Campaign group of MPs, who no-one expected to win, entered the ballot largely for “a debate”. In the other, across the country, an anti-austerity candidate from the Campaign group of MPs, who no-one expected to win, entered the ballot largely for a debate.

The candidate in London, Diane Abbott, a black woman, got 16 per cent of the vote. She finished third, behind two candidates to her right: a white woman, Tessa Jowell, finished second. An Asian man, Sadiq Khan, finished first.

 The candidate across the country, Jeremy Corbyn, a white man, got 59 per cent of the vote. He defeated three candidates to his right, a man and two women. The women – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – finished third and fourth respectively.

I’m not saying that the 44 per cent gap between Abbott and Corbyn is wholly the result of racism and/or sexism.  It is difficult, however, to argue that none of it was.

Throughout the campaign, Abbott was marginalised, not only in the bulk of the coverage of the mayoral race, but by others on the Left. At Jeremy Corbyn’s final victory rally, Len McCluskey praised Corbyn for bringing up a debate that hadn’t been discussed for “more than thirty years”. But Abbott had run on a platform very similar to Corbyn’s just five years ago. (McCluskey’s Unite opted to endorse Ed Miliband instead.)

In the leadership race, there is a perfectly honourable explanation for what happened: Labour members voted for the candidate that was furthest to the left.  But in the deputy race, Tom Watson defeated a woman - Angela Eagle - who was to his left. Khan beat Jowell, who, according to the polls, had a better chance  of beating Zac Goldsmith, and Abbott, who was far to his left. 

The real question isn't: "does Labour have a problem with women?", nor is it "does Labour have a problem with ethnic minorities?". We know that  the culture at large has a problem with women and a problem with minorities. There's no reason at all to suggest Labour is any different from the country. A better question is: what to do about it?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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