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10 October 2022

Scotland’s rent freeze

The responsiveness of the country's proportional electoral system to left-wing pressure is in sharp contrast with English conservatism.

By Rory Scothorne

“The Scottish Greens are not just Tweeting about change, we are doing the work of delivering it.” So wrote the Greens’ Ross Greer MSP in the Daily Record last month, hitting back against critics of his party’s record since joining a “cooperation agreement” with the SNP a year ago. The “change” in question is an emergency rent freeze, passed on 6 October by the Scottish Parliament. The policy was proposed earlier this year by the Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba and voted down by the SNP and Greens on the grounds of its supposed unworkability. That earlier vote prompted a wave of outrage from left-wingers – including some natural Green sympathisers – some of whom have begun to suspect the party of losing its way in the corridors of power.

Those corridors are certainly longer and more labyrinthine than the Greens and their supporters might have liked. There has been no big bang of radicalism from the new government, and the cost-of-living crisis has forced both the SNP and Greens on to the defensive, with a fresh wave of spending cuts on the horizon. Yet the crisis has also created opportunities to show off their priorities: this week’s rent freeze announcement follows a big, centrally funded pay offer for striking local authority workers, which Sturgeon has warned will mean cuts elsewhere. Both policies were the result of committed campaigning by tenants’ and trade unions, but they also point to a political system that – unlike Westminster – can be responsive to well-organised left-wing pressure.

The cost-of-living crisis has been compounded by years of soaring rent costs: according to Citylets, rents have gone up by 9.9 per cent over the past year in Scotland, averaging £970 per month; things are worst in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where tenants have faced an average five-year rise of 23.7 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. The Scottish Property Federation – a landlords’ lobby group – claims that this is down to soaring demand produced by insufficient housebuilding. Their tenants seem to think someone’s missing from this picture. In 2014, tenants and other activists – many fresh from the independence referendum campaign – established Living Rent, a tenants’ union dedicated to grassroots community organising and a militant, confrontational approach to landlords, whom they accuse of “greedily profiting off our basic need for a roof over our heads”.

Alongside this extra-parliamentary activity, however, Living Rent has become a significant player in electoral politics by mobilising tenants and supporters around the policy process, forcing rent controls and tenants’ rights on to the agenda by keeping up pressure throughout the Scottish government’s torturously drawn-out public consultation system. The movement’s demands have strongly influenced the Scottish Green Party, partly thanks to a crossover in their core demographics; Living Rent secured its biggest political triumph last year, when the SNP-Green “cooperation agreement” committed the Scottish government to rent controls as part of a sweeping “New Deal” for tenants.

However, many Living Rent activists were suspicious of the plan to delay rent controls legislation until the end of the parliamentary term. Not only did this give landlords ample time to pre-emptively hike up rents; it also raised the spectre of a U-turn should circumstances provide the Scottish government with an excuse to do so. In the interim, the union began lobbying for a rent freeze, which was narrowly excluded from Covid-19 emergency legislation in 2020 after a Green proposal was voted down by the SNP and Scottish Conservatives. A freeze returned to the agenda in June this year thanks to Mercedes Villalba, who put forward an amendment to the Coronavirus Recovery Act that was rejected again – this time with the added opposition of the Greens, now in “cooperation” with government after election success last May.

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[See also: It’s political suicide for Labour to ditch first past the post]

This prompted outrage on some parts of the Scottish left, but the Greens claimed that the amendment would place the rest of the act in danger by leaving it open to legal challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights’ “protection of property” provisions. Then, out of the blue, the Scottish government announced an immediate rent freeze last month, lasting until March next year. Landlords howled with outrage, claiming they had not been consulted – which, given their propensity to pre-empt rent restrictions, was exactly the point. Muted grumbles also came from some on the left, who saw in the new legislation a cynical effort by the SNP and Greens to claim a popular intervention as their own rather than let Villalba and Scottish Labour have it earlier – which some argue could have protected many more tenants from huge, sometimes unbearable, rent hikes over the summer.

The Greens say that the new legislation is legally secure, and argue that unlike Villalba’s amendment, a legal challenge to this plan would not risk bringing down a whole tranche of other protections, as it could have for the recovery bill’s wider housing provisions. Villalba says she had legal advice in support of her own amendment, and that there was no effort to “work constructively” with her to improve the proposals; but Greer, the Green MSP, told me that Labour’s insistence that its amendment was workable precluded any further cooperation.

This partisan blame and claim game may sound rather sordid, but it also reflects a genuinely positive feature of Scottish politics: a kind of left-wing ratchet, in which the various centre-to-left parties compete for a politically mobile bloc of young, educated, financially precarious voters as well as much of the wider working class. This is in many cases a competition for “second” votes – the “regional list” component of Scotland’s proportionate, two-vote “top-up” system – while the SNP continues to sweep Scotland’s constituencies. But it demonstrates the value to the left of combining proportional representation with a self-consciously “progressive” political culture.

The rent freeze also indicates the value of a well-maintained balance between “insider” and “outsider” politics, from which the wider left might learn a thing or two. On one hand, Living Rent has succeeded by avoiding the forms of “NGOisation” that afflict so many social movements, which drag causes and organisations into the corridors of power as puppets of civic “consultation” and never let them escape again. It has instead stuck to its guns and pursued a community organising approach as well as an unyielding, principled set of demands. This has given its representative claims real legitimacy – not just speaking for its members but helping to produce a self-conscious, public-spirited community of tenants with clear interests and values to fight for.

On the other hand, Living Rent has also been able to put this pressure on supporters inside Scottish institutional life, benefiting from the presence in Holyrood of Green, Labour and SNP MSPs who are both ideologically sympathetic to its cause and – crucially – stand to benefit electorally from aligning with it. This, again, is thanks in part to a proportional representation system in which multiple centre-left parties can compete for votes without wiping each other out in the process. It’s also thanks to a political culture that invests “progressive” causes with a degree of national virtue and symbolism (the mobilising “myth” of “radical Scotland”), rather than scorning them as the preserve of “liberal elites”.

That culture has been forged in defiance of its English neighbour, emphasising Scottish progressivism against English conservatism. The SNP may have eventually U-turned on a rent freeze because it offered an eye-catching means of differentiating Scotland’s response to the cost-of-living crisis from the UK’s. It is also a cheap response – the cost falls on landlords, not taxpayers – and, ironically, a rent freeze is partially a consequence of devolution. Landlords’ proposed alternative – rapidly building hundreds of thousands of new homes – is beyond the fiscal wiggle-room of a Scottish government that lacks sufficient revenue-raising powers. Instead, the Scottish government and the Greens have to walk the finest of lines: proving that Scotland can make “difficult choices” in tough times, while also continuing to project values of democracy, egalitarianism, responsibility and common sense. Every new policy, remember, is not only an investment in the next election campaign, but also in the next referendum campaign. Tenants’ activists and their parliamentary allies across the parties can take much of the credit for this radical intervention in the housing market. But we can also thank the persistent, background hum of the national question.

[See also: Liz Truss starts the parliamentary term in a desperately weak position]

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