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Kezia Dugdale: The ghost of Labour yet to come

English Labour MPs would do well to listen to the leader of Scottish Labour. 

“All I want for Christmas” pipes into the empty Holyrood bar as I wait to meet Kezia Dugdale. It is late December, and I am sitting in the depths of a parliament that has been rocked by two referendums, not to mention a changing of the political guard. But when the leader of the Scottish Labour party herself arrives, in a simple black jacket and blouse, she does so calmly, and without fanfare. 

The track changes to Band Aid. We review the political shocks of the past six months. “Scottish Labour were ahead of the curve,” she says softly. “The party across the UK has a huge opportunity to look at Scotland and work out what they can take from that.”

The party should listen. If Tony Blair, that thrice-elected PM, is the ghost of Labour past, Dugdale may be the ghost of Labour yet to come. When she became leader of the Scottish Labour party in 2015, she inherited a party reeling from a general election defeat after a divisive referendum.  

The misery continued. The following May, it was the MSPs’ turn. A bloody Scottish parliamentary election saw Labour demoted to third place, behind both the SNP and a rebranded “unionist” Conservative party. This defeat was quickly followed by the Brexit vote. 

Now, Labour across the UK is walking the same post-referendum tightrope. Its attempt to appeal to both Leave and Remain voters has failed miserably, both in by-elections and national polling. 

I ask if Scottish Labour is two years ahead on the post-referendum trajectory. Dugdale suggests five. There is no point panicking, she insists: “That is the mistake - to think a few more focus groups or another poll is going to fix it.”

Instead, Labour must brace itself for a long, drawn-out, constitutional conversation. “This is what referendums do,” Dugdale says simply. “They divide communities.”

Some Labour MPs in England have been watching Dugdale closely – and not just because she holds a vital seat on the National Executive Committee. A few weeks before we meet, she outlined her plan in The Staggers for a “radical reshaping of our country along federal lines”. Shortly before his resignation, Jamie Reed, the Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria, took up the cue with a demand for a “discrete English Labour identity”

In a united kingdom where more than 80 per cent live in England, Dugdale herself admits a perfectly symmetrical federalism would be impossible. But a commitment to “confederalism”, as she calls it, still offers the chance of an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics. 

 “The biggest lesson I have taken from our election result in May is you can’t duck, avoid or seem not to address the issue of the day, if that is what people want to talk about,” she says. “As much as we wanted to talk about tax and public services, what they really wanted to talk about was constitutionalism.

“Now we have a policy of federalism. I think that gives us a right to talk on other issues.”

Dugdale isn’t the only Scottish heavyweight to take a view on Labour’s UK predicament. In November, Gordon Brown described Brexit as a “revolt of the regions” against the “dead hand” of central government. But while the former PM is watching from the sidelines of retirement, Dugdale will be in office to see at least part of it through. 

In doing so, she will be working with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Despite her previous criticism of him, Dugdale steers clear of blaming the Labour leader in Westminster for the party’s dismal polls. 

“It breaks my heart to see Labour polling like that, because I want to see a Labour government, but I do think a big part of it is constitutional politics,” she says. 

“That doesn’t mean you have to be resigned to your future. It is about recognising the divide, and trying to close that gap.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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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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