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If the left wants to stop losing, we'll have to do a lot more listening

Labour is in danger, and the problem didn't start with Jeremy Corbyn.

An awful lot of tripe is written about Labour's disconnection with voters in our traditional heartlands. According to a lazy and insulting caricature, these are industrial cities and towns where Labour votes were once weighed, instead of counted, or where a donkey with a red rosette would always win.

The reality is more complex.  Take the two places that formed my politics more than anywhere else: Bradford, where I grew up, and the former coal mining seat of Ashfield which I am so proud to represent in Parliament. Both of them would fit a stereotype of the “Labour heartlands”. But when I was studying for my A-Levels in Bradford, the council was run by the Tories’ Eric Pickles and when I first got elected in Ashfield in 2010 my majority was just 192 votes.

I’m glad to say that the people of my constituency gave me a better margin of victory in the last election but we had disappointing results elsewhere in 2015, not least in other seats nearby - former mining seats, former Labour seats like Broxtowe, Sherwood and Amber Valley - where tiny Tory majorities in 2010 became big ones in 2015.

Labour’s difficulties in our heartlands did not begin with Jeremy Corbyn because the truth is that our support in places like these have been eroding for a long time. It’s a key reason we haven't won a general election for over a decade. And nor is this just a British problem. Across the developed world, the left and centre-left is in retreat with social democrats in the European Union losing 26 out of 33 national elections since the financial crisis in 2008.

So I have never taken Labour voters or Labour heartlands for granted. And that is why I want to begin a formal project to listen to voters in my constituency. I will give them the chance to tell me what they want from politics and, crucially for me and for the party I love so much, what they want from Labour. I want them to tell me what they worry about and what kind of future they hope can be built for their children. I want them to explain to me why so many voted to leave the European Union. And I want people who took part in that referendum but not the general election to make me understand why.

It’s what I’m going to do non-stop for the next 10 weeks. I know not everyone is as interested in this as I am and if I called a public meeting in Ashfield, I wouldn’t hear from anyone who had anything better to do. That’s why I am going out to meet as many of my constituents face-to-face where they live and work. I am starting on Friday with male construction workers followed by women admin workers at a successful Ashfield engineering company. Between now and mid-March I will listen to teachers, ex-miners, hairdressers, 6th form students, pensioners, small business owners, mums with toddlers, golf club members, non voters, ex-voters and people who would never vote for me.

But I also know this: the Labour Party is not like some dodgy business trying to sell people stuff they don’t want. People share our values: they need an NHS that serves their children as well as it as served us; they don’t want to see neighbours living on handouts from foodbanks; and they believe a fair day’s work should result in a fair day’s pay.

If we are honest with ourselves, we are still working on the concrete policies to make these things a reality. If we don't have a practical vision of a better country which people believe and buy into we will fail again and again. The ideas we need to rebuild that vision won’t just come from think-tanks in Westminster and Whitehall – or they won’t work if they do. Any project to create a better future for the people had better begin with the people themselves.

But winning their trust and their votes also requires us to address the doubts so many people have about us. It's dead simple: we will lose again if we don’t do this.

And Labour losing means kids losing chances in life or even going without food. The work that the last Labour government did to lift children out of poverty is all set to be undone by this government. As someone who grew up in pretty tough circumstances in the 1980s, that progress came too late for me. I believe that I – and all of us in the Labour Party - have a responsibility to stop the same happening to any more children. I’m calling my tour “Gloria Listens in Ashfield”. It is what I can do right now to make sure I don’t shirk my responsibility.

I look forward to sharing the results.

Gloria De Piero is Labour MP for Ashfield. 

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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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