Who lives in a house like this? Not you, pauper. Photo: Getty Images
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What hope is there for Generation Rent when a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords?

It’s no secret that, as far as the housing market goes, the millennial generation have been (and this is the technical term) royally screwed over. While members of previous generations appear to have bought houses for the current price of a packet of crisps, lounged around inside them for a couple of decades and then sold them for around a 500 per cent profit, we now wring our hands at the news that not a single area in the country has seen wages and house price inflation remain aligned. In the London borough of Hackney, the average salary should be £131,924 if it was to match up with property pricing, according to Shelter (Spoiler: it isn't). Needless to say, very few of the twentysomething interns working their bollocks off for free lunches that we know are expecting to make that sort of money any time soon.

Amelia Gentleman's dispiriting Guardian piece on the Hackney house price bubble gave a snapshot of how galling it is to search for a house in the borough even when you have large cash reserves thanks to the bank of mum and dad. For those of us without that privilege, our hopes of owning our own homes, especially in London but also in many other areas of the country, have gone from measly to non-existent. As the newspapers have been doggedly making us aware for the past five years or so, we really are becoming 'generation rent'. Not that rent is particularly affordable for young people either, you understand. That would just be silly.

Skyrocketing rents and housing ladders with the first rung sawn off have led to what we might euphemistically term ‘innovative living’. Innovative living - especially in London, where the cost of living as a student now outstrips the cost of living like a king in our respective hometowns - takes the form of situations like couch-surfing, room-sharing and cupboard-inhabiting. One of us genuinely lived in the other’s airing cupboard for a month when awaiting enough salary to accrue from her full-time job to pay a rental deposit, and that was the best option of three. Mere months before, we had lived together in what could kindly be described as a Kentish Town hovel, complete with mouse infestation, missing windows, peeling salmon-coloured wallpaper and a bathroom shared with the flat below which sometimes contained dog poo. This was hardly unusual by the standards of our friends at the time. More than a handful genuinely described the place as ‘charming’.

Yesterday, we were on Twitter moaning about a mould problem that one of us is currently experiencing due to poor outside guttering and porous brick walls. It has taken the landlord three months and counting to respond to the problem, but the overwhelming response online was that three months is nothing. We spent all day being regaled with tales of unsympathetic landlords who told tenants to open their windows, buy a dehumidifier, or simply stop "breathing too much".


@VagendaMagazine More mould for collection! My bedroom in last place. Landlord did nothing. Health risk right? pic.twitter.com/f1iaplBuMw

— frankie mullin (@frankiemullin) February 18, 2014


We were inundated with horror stories and photographs of people's damp and mould problems (one wall even had an actual live mushroom in it), all of which were occurring in rented accommodation and which their landlords were failing to sort out. Then an irate landlord chipped in to tell us to open our windows and that 'you are the sort of crap tenant that every landlord dreads'. If pointing out poor living conditions doesn't make you a crap tenant, then telling your landlord that they're everything that wrong with this country certainly does, but it was difficult after that not conversation not to consider buy-to-let landlords the scum of the earth. Such was this particular one's lack of concern at our breathing problems.


@VagendaMagazine I slept with a ring of salt around my bed at uni as our house was infested with damp loving slugs

— emma (@me_emma_t) February 18, 2014


In describing such living standards, we don’t intend to beg for sympathy. Instead, we hope to illuminate how dangerously normalised this sort of situation has become. One London renter said that she hadn't lived in a single flat that hadn't had significant mould issues, despite having moved seven times. Space-wise, living rooms have become a rarity in the capital, where they are now routinely converted by money-grabbing landlords into extra bedrooms, sometimes with the use of paper-thin plywood partitions. Young people - and that includes people in their thirties - are shoved into these overpopulated, under-maintained enclosures like so many sardines in tin cans. Often the landlords know they don’t have to clear those growing patches of damp, mend that cracked piece of glass, fix the dodgy electrics or install proper fire alarms. There will always be another desperate tenant willing to fill the previous one’s place. In fact, the owners of these buy-to-let places can afford to be choosy: just cast your eye over the number of rooms going on Gumtree that specifically stipulate ‘NO DSS’.


@VagendaMagazine @ElleEmmie @toni_oni My 10 yo son has lived in 7 diff houses because landlords keep selling from under us.

— Aoife Walsh (@AoifeMPWalsh) February 18, 2014


It’s difficult to believe that this state of affairs won’t go on for ever, but clearly something has to give. We are in the midst of a housing crisis and yet little is being done to help those trapped in rented accommodation with no hope of becoming first time buyers. All that Help to Buy - a scheme overseen by a parliament of which a third are buy-to-let landlords - seems to be doing is creating a housing boom. Meanwhile, we are forced to look at broadsheet lifestyle articles in which minted property developers show us the design potential that exists in former social housing. 

As even the right-wing media begins to highlight empty properties left to rot throughout the UK - either abandoned by ridiculously wealthy owners or deliberately kept unoccupied to drive up rent prices nearby - it’s clear that the tide is turning, however slowly. These were of course the same newspapers that campaigned against squatting, but even they seem to be finding the horrific waste of valuable housing space distasteful. Meanwhile, among the younger generation, the anger is building and festering, the dry rot is setting in, and eventually it's going to burst through the wall. 

"I've never had somewhere that was 'home'", said one twentysomething, and God do we empathise. But we all need to remember that the sadness at not having somewhere to really call home, that tight little knot of anxiety about the future that resides in our stomachs, can be incredibly powerful when effectively channelled. We need to stop behaving as though we're resigned to living in mouldy shitholes, and get angry and stay angry, because, in their big houses with their buy-to-let incomes, the people in power realise how angry we are. 

PS. Here's the mushroom:


@VagendaMagazine surely this HAS to be the winner? Fully formed mushroom.. pic.twitter.com/SmAiLjsejc

— Ellen (@EllenRhian) February 18, 2014

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?