There's something everyone has missed in Boris Johnson's Dudley speech

The Prime Minister's “New Deal” speech shows the government is waking up to the urgency, and political salience, of housing, just as Labour is.

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Boris Johnson has delivered his much-anticipated speech “New Deal” speech on the economy this morning, unveiling £5bn of investment for schools, roads, and other infrastructure projects with the hope of kick-starting the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

There is much to analyse in the Prime Minister’s Dudley address, from the extent to which these pledges are any different to the government’s manifesto spending pledges (answer: not much, but “speeded up”, as Johnson said), the validity of any parallel with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s (again, maybe not a terribly valid comparison) and the details as to how many jobs this investment will really create as millions of people face redundancy in an economy that has shrunk by 20 per cent due to the crisis.

But what was maybe most interesting were Johnson’s comments on housing. Much of his speech discussed building in general terms, on roads, schools and hospitals, but he also promised the most ambitious programme of house-building since the second world war. It corrects, he said, “decade after decade in which we have failed to build enough homes”.

This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it may be the single biggest change that could meaningfully address the structural problems exposed by the pandemic. As I wrote this morning, deprivation is one of the largest determinants of the severity of the virus’ impact, both economically and in terms of mortality rates, and overcrowded housing is a specific structural issue within this. Yes, building new roads and renovating schools will create jobs and have long-term effects on the connectivity of regional economies and the educational outcomes of the local population. But building new homes is also a way of uprooting one of the fundamental weakness in the UK’s pandemic resilience. If the housing is genuinely affordable, delivered quickly, and accommodates large families without crowding them, this will be one of the best ways of protecting those who have suffered most from this crisis and remain the most vulnerable to its effects.

Secondly, the Prime Minister spoke of the housing crisis as an “intergenerational injustice”, a rare and forceful acknowledgement of the way a housing shortage resonates not only as an issue of poverty and income inequality, but one of generational inequality. 

The recent Labour Together election report revealed a strong consensus on economic issues between the voters the party currently has, and the voters it needs to win back. One of the strongest expressions of this consensus was on housing: from older Brexiteers to young liberals, there was an unexpectedly strong agreement across demographics that the entire housing system “needed fundamental change” the report says, from “far greater access to social housing, action on private rents and landlords, and, strongly amongst town dwellers, a sense that Right to Buy should be halted until more houses were available”. 

Anyone reading that election report will be left in no doubt that housing will become a pillar of Labour’s electoral offer at the next election. It is an issue that unites people across cultural divides and age differences. It lends itself to the party’s hope of finding an electoral message that tells a story about family and community. And, as a serious way of tackling deprivation and inequality, it is underpinned by the sense of “moral urgency” to which the report says Labour must aspire.

Boris Johnson’s acknowledgement of the scale of the housing crisis is an indication that the government is waking up, not only to the vital importance of the housing issue, but the issue’s political salience. At the last election, the Conservative party moved towards Labour economically with its pledges on schools, police and the NHS, and has consistently indicated its willingness to park its tanks on Labour’s lawn on issues of public investment. His administration receives daily polling, unheard of from previous governments, and places such an emphasis on public opinion that it has been criticised as “government by focus group”. It would be no surprise if this renewed shift on homes is the result of data that indicated the level of consensus on this issue.

The recent general election in the Republic of Ireland saw an unexpected surge of support for Sinn Fein, a surge that came as a surprise even to the party’s own politicians. It did not stand enough candidates to reflect the scale of that surge, but that election teaches a valuable lesson on the unexpected political salience of housing, the main issue on which the party contested the election. The Republic of Ireland has a housing crisis similar to the one in the UK; by shoring up its credibility on this issue, showing it understood the problem and had robust proposals to address it, Sinn Fein - in part, inadvertently - overhauled its image and pulled in voters who had never previously considered the party.

Housing is one of the great political issues of our times. It has both generational and socioeconomic salience, as well as a particular resonance in the coronavirus crisis. Labour is likely to push the issue in the coming weeks and years. But Boris Johnson’s speech today suggests this could well be the beginning of a turf war on housing.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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