Photo: Ciaran Norris @ flickr.com

The Corbyn insurgency

The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency. Insurgencies don’t always involve riots, or people sitting around bonfires for weeks in city squares. Insurgencies occur when people in a country, an institution or political movement refuse to play by the established rules and that defiance strikes a popular chord. Insurgencies feed on their own enthusiasm. Every attempt by the established political leadership to “talk sense” into the insurgents usually backfires and feeds the revolt. That is exactly what is happening in the Labour leadership election.

With very few exceptions, established political leaders are hopeless at handling insurgent movements. They don’t understand the mixture of anger and hope that fuels them (even when they say they do, they don’t). The messages they send out – which boil down to telling people to play by the rules (in this case choosing the an “electable” candidate from among the party’s existing leadership) – not only fall flat, but give the insurgency more fuel. This happens not because people don’t understand the rules – as the leaders usually think – but because people believe they can change the rules. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s a mobilising thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes things happen.

The Labour leadership has got this so spectacularly wrong, it’s becoming hard to see them as credible politicians at all. The über-Blairite John McTernan doesn’t seem to realise that publicly plotting a coup against Corbyn before he’s even won (and threatening “retribution”) only fuels the sense of thwarted democracy and rage against injustice that is driving Corbyn’s campaign. Chuka Umunna calling party members “petulant children” for being angry about the defeats in 2010 and 2015 just makes people angrier still. Alastair Campbell at least acknowledged that a dressing-down from Tony Blair’s spin chief might help the defiantly “unspun” Corbyn, but he doesn’t seem to get that stern lectures on winning elections look ridiculous coming from a leadership that led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row. And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. But no – on and on they go, piling stupidity on top of ineptitude.

The Labour party is not a fan club. Members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS.What’s wrong with these people? How could they so misread the movement they’re supposed to lead? Did they really think that opening up the contest to “registered supporters” would lead to an influx of centrists and ex-Tory voters suddenly eager to help the party they just rejected at the polls? My 22-year-old stepdaughter has been involved with various left-wing causes since sixth form, but has never been near the Labour party. She has now joined, specifically to vote for Corbyn. She’s not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party. Those are exactly the kind of people who are driving the Corbyn insurgency.

And why not? What Labour’s leaders – including the three beardless candidates – don’t seem to get is that Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. Party members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS on their way to the green benches. Like any political movement, the Labour party is composed of people who give their time, energy and sometimes their money to a cause they believe in. Dismissing Corbyn’s campaign as a “protest movement” is a stupid way to try to change the mind of people who want to protest, and feel there is a lot to protest about. Protest is about persuasion, and persuasion is the stuff of politics. And isn’t politics what we’re supposed to be doing in the Labour party?

Campbell, McTernan and others like to lecture members about how elections are “won from the centre”. Of course, that cannot be literally true — the Tories are not a centre party and seem to be doing all right, while the Lib-Dems haven’t won an election for a while. In reality, elections are won by the party of left or right which best mobilises its own supporters at the same time as making a convincing appeal to voters who see themselves as neither left nor right.

But the lectures miss the point. The Labour party is not a centre party and never really has been. You can’t take a cow and convince people it’s really a horse. You can persuade them that it’s a really nice cow, that it’s a cow with some very horse-like qualities, but people still know it’s a cow. You can try to turn the Labour party into a centre party, a party which says more or less what it thinks centrist voters want to hear, but then you lose the movement. Because that isn’t politics, it’s just market research.

Politics involves a lot of compromise; that’s inevitable and even welcome. All effective political movements know that. But you have to have a position from which to compromise. What does Labour stand for? Do we accept the right-wing, neoliberal idea of society? How are we going to make a globalised, tech-driven economy work for most people? How are we going to reverse the transformation of London into an investment supermarket for overseas speculators? Are we actually going to do anything about ever-widening inequality and the sharp reversal of social mobility? If so, what? A political movement must be able to answer those questions, and many others too. You may not like the answers Jeremy Corbyn is coming up with, but the other candidates mostly dodge the questions, hiding behind platitudes like “ending child poverty” or trivia like changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission.

Once the accommodation with neoliberalism failed electorally, the movement was always likely to reject it sooner or later. The bloodless electoral calculus of McTernan, Campbell and others would leave the UK without a major socialist or social democratic political party. Whether you like it or nor, there is at least very large minority who believe in and want to campaign for the ideas of the left. For the first time in a generation, many of them see the Labour party as a movement that can express those ideas. That is why Jeremy Corbyn will probably be elected leader of the Labour party next month.

Photo: Chris Beckett at flickr.com

Should I vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

In politics, I like to think of myself as principled but realistic. I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. My political heroes were mostly practical, moderate socialists – intellectual heavyweights for sure, but people who didn’t mind dirtying their hands in getting something done: Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, François Mitterrand. People who understood the grubbiness of the material world and were prepared to work with it. People who had few illusions about how working people think, or about where extremism can lead.

When I was at university, 25 years ago, I was mocked (in a comradely way) for being the most right-wing member of the Labour club (although, as I remember, I was the only one prepared to join the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, a proscribed organisation in the Labour party at the time). When I left, the committee gave me a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, inscribed with warnings not move further to the right or become any more “careerist” (no worries on that score).

Inevitably, more than one or two of the wellwishers in that book went on to be leading lights in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The party moved round me. What I thought of as mainstream social democracy went from being on the right of the party, to the centre and then to the left. Even “Red Ed” Miliband couldn’t put together a coherent social democratic programme – although that had as much to do with lack of confidence as lack of conviction. By about 2000, it was a mark of the hard left to be in possession of, to use Denis Healey’s preferred definition of democratic socialism, “an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable suffering”.

The definition is, I think, Kolakowski’s. But in his memoirs, Healey went on to expand on his own feeling for what socialism should be:

Socialism emphasises the community rather than the individual, consensus rather than confrontation, public welfare rather than private gain; it puts the quality of life before the quantity of goods. But its priorities are not absolute; it does not deny that the values which it normally puts second will sometimes need to come first, or that it’s opponents may also give some importance to socialist values. 1

Spot on. But that’s Denis Healey, one-time monetarist chancellor and bête-noire of the Labour left in the 1980s. Spout that kind of stuff within earshot of today’s shadow cabinet and they visibly flinch.

Every fibre of my being says I shouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but the reasons just keep melting away like snow on a hotplate. I think austerity is nuts; Corbyn is the only anti-austerity candidate. I think the NHS has had enough marketisation and privatisation; he’s the only one to rule out any more of it. I’ve always supported renationalising the railways; Corbyn is only candidate to say he agrees (I suspect Burnham and Cooper agree too, but are afraid to say so – hardly a compelling reason to support them). I’m against the cuts in tax credits which, after years of both parties telling people they’d be looked after if they got a job, are cruel and unnecessary. Corbyn is the only candidate who voted against them in the Commons.

Don’t even get me started on the irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

These are not extreme or “hard left” policies. They’re solid, social democratic positions. And I’m willing to bet that they’re shared by a majority, or at least a very large minority, of the British people.

And then, just when I thought I’d found my personal red line, Corbyn ruled out supporting Brexit in the EU referendum.

But, scream Corbyn’s enemies, he can’t possibly win the election! True, all conventional wisdom and experience says it’s very unlikely. (I actually remember 1983). But that argument only holds water if you think any of the other three can win. I don’t.

Liz Kendall is in many ways an admirable candidate, but I’ve already written about how her England-only strategy simply cannot work. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have so far offered little that’s new or interesting. And don’t even get me started on the delicious irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

What passes for Corbyn’s electoral strategy involves winning over non-voters and supporters of the Greens and the SNP. We don’t know if that can work; no one’s really tried it before. Election gurus tell us that non-voters are very hard to mobilise and many people think Scotland has “gone” already. So it looks optimistic, to say the least. But, after an election in which Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP and the Tory vote hardly changed, to say all we need to do is move closer to the Tories is just witless.

The best argument against Corbyn is simply that he isn’t a serious candidate. He doesn’t really want to be leader, still less prime minister. It’s hard to imagine him going up against Cameron at PMQs. He’s too old (71 at the next election). The rest of the shadow cabinet may not work with him. There are some unpleasant people associated with his campaign talking about purging the party. Corbyn himself has taken foolish positions with respect to the IRA and Hamas in the past, which will be ruthlessly deployed against him in the future.

Much more importantly, Corbyn’s policies, attractive as many are to people on the left, don’t add up to a coherent programme for a socialist government. I’m disappointed with Corbyn on policy; I hoped he’d be more imaginative and serious once it became clear he had a chance of winning. Corbyn’s campaign still prefers to chant slogans about the failures of free-market capitalism rather than do the hard work of transforming it into something better for working people. There’s no attempt to develop a serious political strategy that can unite more of the anti-Tory majority around a progressive platform. And I’m still baffled by Jeremy’s reluctance to back electoral reform. (Corbyn is now promising to make his website a forum for serious policy debate. Marina Mazzacuto and Will Hutton’s thinking about an “enabling” or “entrepreneurial” state – refracted into a political programme by Peter Hain – might be a good place to start.)

But if Corbyn’s campaign looks like a protest movement, that’s because it is. It increasingly resembles a typically English, cobbled-together version of the movement against austerity and neo-liberalism we’ve seen in Scotland, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Young people, in particular, are flocking to Corbyn and his campaign seems to be igniting interest and passion in politics in the same way as the Scottish indepedence referendum did last year. If Corbyn can forge that movement – which stretches from moderate social democrats like me to the far fringes of the Occupy movement — into a political fighting force, that might be better for the left than trying to scrape together a Labour majority from soft Tories and refugee Lib Dems. But that’s a big “if”.

Voting for Corbyn means gambling with the life of the party we love for an uncertain, amorphous return. In normal circumstances I’d never go near it. But these aren’t normal times; across Europe, the future of the democratic left itself is at stake. It might just be worth rolling the dice.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of my Life, London 1989, p 578-9. ↩︎

UPDATE 17 AUGUST 2015: Since this post was published Andy Burnham has announced a plan to renationalise the railways “line by line” as existing operator franchises expire.

Should I vote for Liz Kendall?

Liz_Kendall_August_2014I really envy those comrades who’ve made their choice in the Labour leadership election and can get stuck into what we love best – bickering among ourselves. I feel left out. I’m all over the place. I change my mind hourly. I’ve toyed with “interesting” preference votes (like Kendall 1, Corbyn 2, and vice-versa) and spoiling my ballot paper altogether (how do you do that online?). For wildly different reasons, I can still see myself voting for any of the four candidates.

So I thought I might try to flush myself out by blogging something about each one, starting, for no paticular reason, with Liz Kendall. Hopefully, I’ll get round to Jeremy, Andy and Yvette in the next couple of weeks.

Kendall sometimes seems to have gone out of her way to alienate traditionally-minded Labour members and has based her campaign so far largely on claims that she has the best chance of winning the 2020 election.

If that were anywhere near true, I would vote for her like a shot, even though winning elections on policies you don’t like seems almost as pointless to me as losing them on policies that you do. Principles without power are worthless, true, but so is power without principles (unless you happen to be the one wielding the power). But Labour is facing an existential crisis and there’s no viable left-wing alternative as a party of government. If Liz can turn it round, so be it.

But my real problem with backing Liz Kendall is that her election winning strategy doesn’t work. I’ve tried to get my head round it, but the numbers just don’t stack up.

I’ve seen nothing from Team Kendall which suggests that their plan is anything other than to try to repeat the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. That wasn’t as sophisticated as terms like “triangulation” made it sound. Basically, Tony Blair tried to win over “centrist” or “soft” Tories by adopting key elements of the Tory programme: privatisation, deregulation, benefit cuts and so on. The calculation, broadly correct in the 1990s, was that Labour’s “core” vote among working class people and middle-class lefties had nowhere else to go. It worked pretty well, although the long-term damage in terms of loss of faith among Labour’s traditional supporters is only now becoming apparent.

Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters.I’ve no idea why intelligent people think this will work 23 years later. The numbers and political realities are completely different. There are far fewer soft Tories now, and fewer Tories full stop. The Conservatives polled 36.9% in May, compared to 41.9% in 1992. Long-term polling evidence suggest the Tory core vote is around 30% (roughly what they were reduced to in 1997 and 2001). So there aren’t many soft Tories for Labour to win over by pretending to like their policies.

Labour is also starting from a lower base than in 1992, when it polled 34.4% and won 271 seats. Professor John Curtice says that to win in 2020, Labour will need a swing even bigger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. If all or most of that has to come from the Tories’ existing vote – 5% lower than in 1992 – the job looks impossible.

The other part of this revived New Labour strategy won’t work either. As the 2015 election brutally demonstrated, Labour’s traditional voters are now all too willing to go elsewhere, whether it’s white working class people switching to UKIP, middle-class liberals voting Green, or Scots backing the SNP. Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters (Kendall is also very pro-EU). I know a lot of people like to think UKIP will simply implode but, even if that does happen, aren’t those disenchanted ex-Labour voters more likely to find another alternative, or give up voting altogether, than return to a Labour Party that looks a lot like the one that drove them away in the first place? And just ask yourself – honestly – how many of the 40 seats Labour lost in Scotland Kendall is likely to win back by moving Labour closer to the Tories.

If anything, Liz seems likely to accentuate the flight of Labour’s traditional supporters. And that means she’ll have to win even more votes from the slim pickings available from the Tories. This risks a ratchet effect where the need to pursue more and more Tory voters pulls the party ever further to the right. Far from being to only candidate who can win, Kendall’s strategy seems the least plausible route to power for Labour in 2020.

The only conceivable way it could work would be if there is a very large pool of non-voters who want a return to something like Blairism and weren’t prepared to make do with Miliband’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories in 2015. But I don’t see any evidence for that. And, in any case, Kendall supporters generally dismiss going after non-voters (at least when it’s suggested by Jeremy Corbyn supporters) as a “non-starter”.

I really hope Liz can come up with something else, because in many ways she’s the most engaging candidate: relatively untainted by the Blair-Brown years, brave, tough, committed, open to new ideas and likely to give Labour the kind of collegiate leadership it needs now (whether she wants to or not). Perhaps Liz can conjure up some of that political magic which can occasionally confound electoral arithmetic. She might still be worth a try. But if you base your appeal mainly on being able to win the election, having an electoral strategy that doesn’t seem to work seems like a big drawback.

Summer 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is out

This issue celebrates the tenth birthday of Managers in Partnership (MiP), the union for NHS managers and publishers of the magazine. We feature exclusive interviews with ten key NHS players on how MiP has supported managers and contributed to the development of the NHS. We also have the Health Foundation’s chief economist Anita Charlesworth on NHS productivity, Daloni Carlise on how to engage NHS staff, and the fantastic Lis Paice on how to give presentations people will stay awake for. There’s also vital information for NHS managers about their pensions (sorry). Healthcare Manager is edited by me, and designed and produced by Lexographic, on behalf of MiP.

Read or download the digital edition here.

Middle Gingers, Frimley, Surrey

Look left, look right, look left again

When I joined the newly-formed North West Surrey “Young Socialists” (as young Labour members were somewhat patronisingly called back then) in 1985, one of our first campaigns was one to save a 16th-century cottage in the middle of our village (although we never thought of Frimley as a village, to us it was sprawling London suburbia). The house was apparently under threat from Thatcherite property developers, who wanted to bulldoze it to make way for some sort of executive housing. We didn’t do much – maybe we held a couple of meetings and wrote an angry letter to someone at the council. I very much doubt it had anything at all to do with our “campaign”, but Middle Gingers (pictured above) was saved. It was later beautifully restored and extended, and is now no doubt the property of some proud multimillionnaire (with a very un-Elizabethan swimming pool).

It wasn’t social housing, and the campaign wasn’t particularly socially useful. So it may seem like an odd cause for enthusiastic Young Socialists to champion in the white-hot political atmosphere of the 1980s. But there weren’t any pits to save in Surrey and none of us were (yet) students with loans and cuts to protest against. There were apparently 250 homeless families in the borough of Surrey Heath, but we didn’t know any of them. None of us were even on the dole!

But Middle Gingers was local, tangible, achievable. It was also emotional. I think the reason we felt strongly about it was that we’d all learned about the cottage at primary school. It was the oldest building in the village. I think it had a priest’s hole. It was a tangible link to Henry VIII, the Armada, and the lopping off of heads which seemed to be the main feature of English history as taught in the 1970s. Middle Gingers stood right on the former village green, common land where our 16th-century forebears would have been able to graze their animals for free. It somehow felt like part of who we were, both as locals and as English boys and girls (and when you come from the Surrey working class you need every scrap of identity you can get). The idea that it could be done away with by some faceless company on the make felt just as wrong in principle as closing a pit or selling off a council house.

Thinking back over my thirty years in the Labour Party and the labour movement, I’m struck by how much time and energy we’ve spent trying to save things (and usually failing) — trying to stop change rather than bring it about. Think on it: we’ve opposed privatisation, we’ve tried to protect much of the welfare state, we’ve campaigned (mostly) against NHS reform. Lefties have worked to “save” comprehensive education and opposed marketisation at the BBC. We’ve tended to oppose – or at least be sceptical about – foreign takeovers of venerable British firms like Cadbury and Boots. Many of us are very worried by the erosion of communities (particularly in working class areas), the disappearance of pubs, and about not knowing our neighbours or how we barely speak to each other anymore outside of work.

And voters, too, have opposed – often by very wide margins – many of the supposedly “inevitable” changes of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era. That’s a paradox for the left: for the most part voters have been on our side. Most people want to keep their local hospital and want to keep their local schools open to everyone. Most people didn’t want the Royal Mail sold off and didn’t much like the look of either Labour or Conservative NHS reforms. They wanted British Rail to stay in public hands. Most people now think selling off council houses was a mistake and they certainly don’t want the government to force housing associations to sell up either. Even in Thatcher’s pomp, support for privatising British Telecom and British Gas was at best lukewarm. Polls say most people want to stay in the the European Union, despite the EU’s best efforts to shit in its own nest.

If you look at what we like and what we want, a lot of people seem to be both social democratic and conservative. That’s not cognitive dissonance; it’s actually where most people on the left have been during the last 35 years. But it’s not hard to see why the conservative side usually wins out at the polls. People who support Thatcherism obviously vote for the Tories. They are joined by people who are basically conservative in disposition and actually think the Conservative party is, well, conservative. They vote Tory because of the party’s name and reputation. And then there are people, who for all their conservative and social democratic beliefs, simply think they’ll be better off under the Tories. Their personal financial wellbeing simply trumps their desire to save their local hospital or keep a good local school open to everyone.

But the British “Conservative Party” values nothing. It has been quite happy to sit back and see communities destroyed in the name of globalisation. It has been happy to see London turned into a global investment supermarket, driving more and more of the city’s working population to the margins or out of the city altogether. It’s done little to conserve rural Britain, encouraging fracking, axing transport services, cutting housing and social support, and leaving farmers exposed to the repacious power of global supermarket chains. If the “market” dictates and the market is controlled by a global elite, there is no room for community, tradition or neighbourliness. There’s no room for local people having a say. Those values are the enemy of the atomised, mobile workforce global capitalism demands – demands to which the Conservative Party almost always accedes.

UKIP has tried to cash in on this, but is hamstrung by its narrow and old-fashioned idea of English identity (conservatism isn’t the same as nostalgia), its quasi-racist reputation and hardline free-market ideology. Farage and his party have no answer to the insecurity and destruction wrought by unfettered global free market. Rather than tackle this difficult contradiction head on, they look for easy scapegoats – immigrants and the EU.

And Labour, while actually being more conservative than the Conservatives in opposing destructive change, offers no idea of the nation (despite Gordon Brown’s hamfisted attempts to articulate “Britishness”) and a very negative, cautious attitude to localism and community. Its conservatism is cut off from any sense of identity, heritage or even values. When it tries to be “conservative”, it just comes over as stick-in-the-mud statism or Blairite sucking up to the rich and powerful.

Community and togetherness ought to be something democratic socialists (or social democrats if you prefer) have in their blood. But the left has been terrible at expressing it and often seems ashamed to embrace community activism or localism (look at Labour’s feeble response to Devo Manc and its total incomprehension of what’s going on in Scotland). This has allowed an increasingly anti-community Conservative party to “own” the issue (in England at least) and, with the collapse of the “localist” Lib-Dems, bank the votes associated with it.

Socialism and conservatism (small ‘c’) are different but they are not opposites. As the steamroller of global free-market capitalism presses relentlessly on, they will be pushed even closer together. And, if blended well, conservatism and socialism are a powerful political cocktail. What is the SNP insurgency other than an effective mix of social democracy and traditonally conservative ideas about identity, national pride and “looking after your own”? What are the bouyant Greens if not a left-wing party of conservation trying to prevent what they see as cataclysmic change. Democratic socialists need to stop fighting it and embrace their inner conservative. Before it’s too late to save anything.

Bloomsday: Bloom contemplates his father’s suicide

Mr Bloom, about to speak, closed his lips again. Martin Cunningham’s large eyes. Looking away now. Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare’s face. Always a good word to say. They have no mercy on that here or infanticide. Refuse christian burial. They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave. As if it wasn’t broken already. Yet sometimes they repent too late. Found in the riverbed clutching rushes.

— James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), p120.

Social housing in Bermondsey, south London

Don’t forget – right to buy is also a directive to sell

I’m going to bang on about housing again. I’m probably going to bang on about housing until some Russian squillionnaire decides to launder his moolah by buying our east London maisonette (Crossrail’s coming soon, tovarishch!). At which point, we’ll be off and you’ll never hear from me on this subject again.

Almost everyone knows the government’s plan to force housing associations to flog off many more homes will make Britain’s (and especially London’s) housing crisis worse, not better. Almost everyone knows the replacement houses won’t get built – look what happened in Manchester, where only two out of 863 council houses sold off were replaced. Almost everyone knows less social housing will increase competition for privately rented hovels, forcing rents and prices ever higher for everyone.

So much for the consequences. But what about the policy itself? The effects will indeed be quite similar to the forced sale of council houses. But the politics behind it are quite different, and actually quite scary. “Right to buy” for council tenants was the state deciding to sell off a state asset for social policy reasons. The motives may have been suspect and the consequences disastrous, but it seems to me something a government with a democratic mandate was entitled to do.

Housing associations are charities. They are not arms of the state. The new policy amounts to sequestration of their assets because their aims and purposes differ from those of government ministers. Most housing associations were not set up to facilitate home ownership (however laudable an aim that may be), still less the profiteering that will follow as sure as night follows day. They were set up to provide affordable housing for people in need. That is what philanthropists give their money for and it’s what volunteers and housing association staff work for. The government is saying it doesn’t like those aims and is prepared to use the full force of the law to make housing associations serve the social policy objectives of the Conservative party instead.

It’s deceitful to call the policy “right to buy” without admitting that someone’s right to buy is also someone else’s obligation to sell. And in a democratic society, rights and obligations are supposed to be universal. So why won’t private tenants have a “right to buy” and private landlords a corresponding “obligation to sell”? (The fact that many Conservative MPs are buy-to-let landlords might have something to do with it.) Giving rights and public money to tenants who have enjoyed subsidised housing while denying it to people who have borne the brunt of Britain’s brutal housing economics is simply perverse.

But of course it is, because the policy has nothing to do with “rights” or extending home ownership. It’s about further reducing social housing, which Tories see as eating into the profits of private landlords and providing an electoral base for Labour and other dangerous lefties like UKIP.

It’s also a pretty naked attack on charities and social enterprise – the so-called “third sector”. Many Tories give money to the poor. Generally, they’re quite in favour of individual altruism, provided it’s on a modest scale. But the kind of grand, collective, entrepreneurial altruism which housing associations represent is beyond the pale. Charities that actually try to cure social problems rather than just alleviate the symptoms pose too much of a threat to their vision of a completely individualised and market-driven society.

Many people see social enterprise, self-help and community action as a democratic and non-statist way forward for the left. Perhaps the Tories agree. The government’s “directive to sell” policy for housing associations looks like their first attempt to block that way forward. It won’t be their last.

A lifetime of self-deception

My review of Tim Milne’s memoir of notorious MI6 double-agent Kim Philby is published in the Spring issue of Public Service Magazine.

Even at school in the 1920s, Kim Philby stood apart. According to this memoir by his schoolfriend and MI6 colleague Tim Milne, the future spy was a “fearless” loner, so secretive that he was never seen going to the lavatory. At cricket, Philby liked to field at deep cover, a remote position ideal for observing the game he loved…

Click here to read the cutting.

Cast from the new production of Rising Damp (2014). The guy being subsidised is the one in the middle by the way.

Subsidy Street

I’m going to propose something you don’t often hear from a socialist – I’m going to suggest we do away with a benefit. It looks like the government has its work cut out finding £12 billion of savings from the welfare budget so, in the spirit of post-election co-operation, here’s my contribution.

After pensions, housing benefit is the biggest element in the welfare bill, and is expected to top £27bn by 2018-19. Almost 40% – some £10 billion – of this is paid to private landlords.

Housing benefit isn’t really a benefit, it’s a subsidy. It enables landlords to charge rents that their tenants (i.e. customers) can’t afford to pay. If the government gave us money in order to buy a car we couldn’t otherwise afford, this would rightly be seen by everyone (probably including the EU’s lawyers) as a subsidy for the car manufacturer. To meet the social need to get about, we would expect the government to invest that money in better public transport.

What’s worse, it’s a subsidy that’s out of the government’s control. Landlords effectively decide how much subsidy they receive. They keep rents high knowing full well that the government will pay them on behalf of tenants (at least up to the ceiling set by the benefit cap). Rents aren’t set freely by the market; the market is “made” by the government. We don’t pay housing benefit because rents are high; rents are high because we pay housing benefit.

Of course, no good will come of withdrawing housing benefit overnight and on its own. It will simply lead to evictions and a collapse of the private rental sector. But that just shows how this is an economic sector dependent on state aid. Landlords are charging rents that are above what the market will bear because taxpayers are making up the difference.

If the government were to phase out housing benefit and invest all or some of the proceeds in social housing, tenants would gain security and (probably) better homes, while taxpayers would save money and acquire valuable assets which can be used to meet the housing needs of future generations. The social benefits of families being able to count on secure accommodation, rather than being shunted around from year to year on the profit-seeking whim of property speculators, are incalculable. (Of course, all this would be much easier to do in the short-term if we had a modern system of rent regulation, a policy unreasonably trashed during the election campaign by people who labour under the delusion – or pretend to – that we have a perfectly functioning housing market.)

The government knows this of course, but is happy to let the current situation continue because it doesn’t want a revival in social housing for ideological (and electoral) reasons. Right-wing governments always talk about getting rid of subsidies in theory, but are happy to pay them if the benefits are going to the right people – in this case landlords and property speculators, who are among the biggest supporters of the Conservative party. When the IPPR proposed something like this last year, it was endorsed by both London mayor Boris Johnson and Labour leaders. Nothing has been heard about it since.

Phasing out housing benefit, or even ending the practice of paying it straight to landlords, would cause rents to fall sharply, something which everyone knows has to happen sooner or later. Yes, some landlords will sell up, which would also reduce our stratospheric house prices. A lot of people wouldn’t like that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.