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What is Labour's "McDonnell amendment" - and why does it matter?

Labour's left is pushing for a change to the leadership election rules. What could it mean for the future of the party?

Nearly two years may have passed, but the parliamentary Labour party barely need reminding how Jeremy Corbyn won a place on the 2015 leadership ballot. Moderate MPs, almost all of them unsympathetic to his politics, were persuaded to lend him their nominations to “broaden the debate". Corbyn squeaked over the threshold of 35 nominations and on to the shortlist with moments to spare. The trajectory his leadership has taken since means few, if any, will be so generous come the next leadership contest.

The consequences are naturally problematic for the left. Barring some unforeseen compromise or an influx of Corbyn loyalists, they face being locked out of a future leadership race by the arithmetic of the rules. At present, these require candidates to be nominated by 15 per cent of Labour’s MPs and MEPs.

The battle, however, is not yet lost – and like all great factional battles within Labour, it will be fought and won on the conference floor. With an eye on Corbyn’s inevitable departure, the Labour left is pushing for an amendment to the leadership rules. This would lower the nomination threshold from 15 per cent to 5 per cent. The reduced quota of 12 MPs – down from 37 – would all but guarantee a left-wing contender (or, indeed, contenders) a place on the ballot.

Dubbed the McDonnell amendment in honour of the shadow chancellor John McDonnell – whose two abortive bids for the leadership in 2007 and 2010 were scuppered by his inability to reach the 15 per cent threshold – the rule change will be floated at Labour conference in Brighton in September.

Critics of the proposed change (and there are many of them) say it undermines the fairly fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy. By contrast, its proponents speak with varying degrees of sincerity on the need to better represent Labour’s new mass membership. Indeed, Momentum’s Jon Lansman – a veteran of the Bennites’ long war with moderates in the eighties – was last week revealed to have told new recruits that securing the amendment was “absolutely crucial” to the future of the project.

But will it pass? Though Labour moderates have been spooked by the prospect of the amendment ushering in infinite Corbynism, many remain bullish as to their chances of seeing it off. The rule change will definitely be debated on the conference floor, but many moderates, having secured a series of important victories at a regional level last year, are confident that the make-up of conference delegates – plus the likely support of unions including Usdaw, the GMB and Unison – will allow them to block the left on this occasion as well.

Ultimately, whether or not the left will get their way depends on their ability to organise effectively at this grassroots level. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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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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