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Challenge Labour and you'll find a horse's head on your pillow

It's all-round compulsory happy time in Labour ranks.

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the local election results with a Labour MP. I explained that my initial reaction had been that they were very good for Labour, especially in terms of number of seats won, but I was concerned that the party hadn’t been able to break through the 40 per cent barrier.

He nodded and said: “Thirty-eight per cent in midterm local elections, with the country falling back into recession, the cuts and the shambles the Tories are in. It’s nowhere near good enough.” Then he shook his head. “But you won’t find anyone saying that, of course.”

Several days later I was chatting to someone who had spent the day at the annual conference of Progress, the New Labour pressure group, and sat through Ed Miliband’s speech. His response was scathing. Could I quote him, off the record? “No. Sorry. We’re all being terribly positive at the moment.”

The next day I phoned a shadow cabinet adviser. “The worst thing is we were just starting to make some headway. The shadow cabinet was beginning to put down some markers on the economy and not just the usual suspects. Now everyone’s going to have to shut up and bite their tongue.”

And, on the whole, they have. The muttering against the leader has ceased. The demands for a more credible stance on deficit reduction and on how the party should respond to the cuts have been muted. Even Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are reportedly poised to become paid-up members of Generation Ed. Labour is united. But united behind what exactly? A solid but unremarkable opinion poll lead? The Tories’ spring omnishambles? François Hollande storming the Bastille of austerity?

No debate

All of which may be a genuine cause for optimism. Or a recipe for complacency. But we’re not going to be finding out, at least in the short term, because such things are not up for discussion. Labour is instead opting for a period of dignified, and comfortable, reflection. Reflection, rather than dialogue. Or debate.

To look out across the Labour movement at the moment is to see an ocean of tranquillity. The party’s “refounding” has been completed; the contentious elements such as a reduction in union conference votes, a directly elected chair and open leadership primaries quietly shelved. The early new year unpleasantness between the leadership and the union leaders has been smoothed over; there is precious little talk now of “tough choices” or “having to keep all these cuts”. The policy review has been removed from the perfidious grasp of the ultra-New Labourite Liam Byrne and dropped into the lap of the party pin-up Jon Cruddas. “Independent-minded” Jon Cruddas, no less, just in case at some point down the road a touch of deniability is required.

Since the Budget, a window of opportunity has opened up for Labour, with George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Sayeeda Warsi and Francis Maude all hurtling out of it. However, Ed Miliband, for reasons best known to him, remains reluctant to scramble through this inviting aperture.

In the past month alone, we have witnessed the crisis in the eurozone, Syria’s descent into barbarism, the deepening of Britain’s double-dip recession, the Rochdale rape scandal, the collapse of the UK’s manufacturing base and government schism over universality of benefits. In response, Labour’s leader has announced a voter registration drive, a call for greater respect for vocational qualifications and a plea to embrace our Englishness, all the while clinging tenaciously to the comfort blanket of the Leveson inquiry into media practices and ethics.

Yet within Labour ranks, this strategy (or anti-strategy) is greeted with silent approval. Perhaps wisely, given that those who do opt to question the current “consensus” risk waking to find the equivalent of a horse’s head on their pillow. We have had Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, taking out a political contract on Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg – the four shadow ministers who have been branded the “horsemen of the austerity apocalypse”.

MPs who fail to show McCluskey and his union appropriate respect have been threatened with the removal of constituency support. Byrne, who dared think the unthinkable on welfare reform, was subjected to what colleagues called “a punishment beating” as he fought to retain his place in the shadow cabinet. Maurice Glasman, who challenged the liberal orthodoxy on social policy, is now confined to what is described as “house arrest”. Progress is facing a concerted effort to see it expelled from the party. And even those idealistic dreamers at Compass are about to be elbowed aside by “Class”, the new union-funded think tank pledging to “cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people”.

Union heavies

The New Politics was supposed to be open, inclusive and pluralistic. Instead, it is being ushered through the labour movement, head bowed, by a bodyguard of old-fashioned union muscle, Twitter warriors and street activists. To stand in the way of this “progressive” entourage is to invite accusations of being a traitor, a Tory, or, worse still, a Blairite.

To be fair to Ed Miliband, he is aware of, and not entirely comfortable with, this new tyranny of loyalty. “I think this is a bit over the top,” one Miliband supporter confided to me after Anthony Painter and Hopi Sen, the fiscal credibility advocates and authors of In the Black Labour, a pamphlet advocating greater fiscal responsibility, found themselves under sustained attack for lacking “ambition and integrity” from the pro-leadership website Shifting Grounds.

That’s where we are. In the perennial battle between loyalists and pragmatists, it is the loyalists who hold the whip hand. And they plan on using it. Which will simply demonstrate that no consensus at all has been reached among Labour’s various factions. Instead, we are witnessing a shift in the internal balance of power: sceptics neither courted nor convinced, but neutered. “We’re in survival mode,” conceded a Blairite shadow cabinet source.
But for how long? Before finishing this piece, I spoke to a Labour MP who talked eloquently about his frustrations with the leadership. “Can I print that?” I asked. “No,” he said, “not at the moment.” Then he paused. “Soon, though.”

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.