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David Cameron says the Conservatives are the party of equality - don't make me laugh

It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic, says Jude Kirton-Darling. 

A ludicrous article written by the Prime Minister in the Guardian on Monday, claiming that "the Conservatives have become the party of equality," is so far-fetched as to appear to be a bad April Fools' joke come early. David Cameron's particular brand of Conservatism, implemented with even greater verve and vigour since May this year, has created the most unequal society I have seen in my lifetime. And yet his outlandish assertions seem to have been allowed to pass under the radar with little more than a whisper of discontent.

The Prime Minister's self-congratulation stems from the thin claim that it is the Conservatives who are pushing for better protections and fairer treatment for aspiring young people from black and ethnic minority communities, for same-sex couples and for Muslims vulnerable to Islamophobic attacks. Yet it is entirely misleading to suggest that such measures are in any way novelty or can be claimed as the Conservatives' own, and as a Labour Member of the European Parliament, I not prepared to let them get away with it. It was core equality legislation introduced by the European Union in 1999 which for the first time gave the European community a specific and legal base upon which to take "appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation." And it is these very communities that have been hit hardest by coalition and Conservative government action since 2010.

Nor, as a political representative of the North East of England, am I prepared to stay silent over the glaring omissions in the Prime Minister's definition of equality, over his failure whatsoever to mention the economic disparity in the UK that has accelerated at an alarmingly rapid rate under his leadership. My constituency has been disproportionately hit by austerity measures implemented since 2010, ranking highest in terms of poverty, long-term unemployment and young people out of work, and where a further 2,200 jobs are to be lost following the devastating closure of Redcar's steel plant. These people need a voice, and it's my job to ensure that voice is heard.

Before dealing with the holes in the Prime Minister's equality manifesto, it would be helpful to begin by unpicking some of the policies he proudly holds up as evidence of this new brand of "compassionate" Conservatism. First to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, which has allowed more than 15,000 same-sex couples to tie the knot since its implementation in 2013. A victory for the LGBT community, certainly, and one which should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements for equality and progressive politics in the past century. But no Tory victory.

Perhaps unsurprisingly from the only party not to have gone into the 2010 general election with a single policy on gay rights, whose leader in 2003 voted against the repeal of Section 28, the Conservative wing of the coalition government showed that they wanted as little to do with the Marriage Bill as was humanely possible, leaving it to their Liberal Democrat colleagues to take the lead in announcing its planned implementation. Handed a free vote by David Cameron, more Conservative MPs voted against the legislation than for it. So far, so unimpressive.

What about David Cameron's decision to place racially motivated crimes against Muslims on a par with anti-Semitism? Racism and hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities are on the rapid rise in the UK, with Islamophobic attacks in London up by 70 per cent in the 12 months leading up to July: any move to tackle such heinous crimes head-on would be laudable if it didn't come from a man whose government has actively stoked the fires of frenzied tabloid scaremongering as Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. "Go home or face arrest" vans, razor wire in Calais and warnings of swarms of marauding migrants flooding our shores demonstrates a party much more content to snuggle up with far right forces than to attempt in any meaningful way to tackle racial and religious prejudice. 

On seeking equality for women Cameron's article is pretty thin, merely stating his party will force company directors to publish data on wage disparity between their male and female employees. That's probably because this government has done more damage to women than any that has preceded it. Whereas the EU has since its inception been fighting to establish equality in the workplace and close the gender pay-gap, the Age of Austerity under David Cameron and his majority male cabinet has seen a series of brutal attacks launched on the female British population on a scale never before seen. According to calculations by the House of Commons Library, 85 per cent of all cuts have been at the expense of women - and that's even before we consider the latest round of planned measures. Women, as primary caregivers and often the lowest earners in society, tend to rely on multiple public services: when social housing, early years education and tax credits are cut, it is women who suffer most. Even worse, the reduction of state funding for women's refuges to its barest bones and a commitment to the outsourcing of local provision for vulnerable women has left these key services struggling to survive, with several being forced to close since 2010.

Indeed, it's the complete and utter failure to include any mention of cuts that make the Prime Minister's assertions about his party's equality credentials are so terrifying. That he published his article on the eve of a House of Lords vote on the future of tax credits for working families is a brazen act of shameless duplicity. George Osborne's plan to slash this support is an unabashed assault on the working poor in our society: escalating rents and the meteoric rise of zero-hours contracts in the UK mean that tax credits for many are the lifeline that ensures they have enough money to feed, clothe and heat themselves and their children. If implemented, it is estimated that three million lower-paid household will lose on average £1,350 per year, plunging 200,000 children into poverty in 2016.

Tax credits are simply the latest in a line of austerity measures that have forced women, the young, the poor and the disabled to shoulder the burden of a crisis not of their making. We are living in an age where "fiscal discipline" means tax cuts to heirs, corporations and high earners, while the sick and disabled are declared fit for work and threatened with a 30 per cent in their weekly benefits. Where young people must pay £9,000 per year to go to university in order to prepare for a 20s spent at home navigating the world of Job Seeker's Allowance, zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships. Where food bank use has tripled and the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 55% since 2010. Where the poor die on average seven years younger and become disabled 17 years earlier than their richer neighbours.

The government's planned cuts to tax credits were delayed on Monday in the House of Lords, but they were not defeated. And with a further £7.6 billion worth of welfare cuts still in the pipeline, the worst is surely yet to come - this in the only G7 country already with wider inequality than at the turn of the century. David Cameron's claim that his is the party of equality is based on a paucity of evidence at best and sheer deception at worst, conveniently ignoring any consideration for the people who have been so brutally hit by his five years of leadership. Such a claim would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic.

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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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