A warning from Newham for Labour…
The Newham housing saga would be shameful for any council but it is especially so for a Labour one. Sending people from London to Stoke is not only morally but intellectually bankrupt. How does it make sense to send struggling families to send them from one struggling area to the next, to uproot them from a community where they have been present and built ties, etc, etc? The answer, of course, is that it does not. It is true that this decision is the product of barbaric central government welfare cuts and failed policies on housing pursued by parties of both hues in power, however, I doubt those affected are of much of a mind to be even-handed and objective about that at the moment. It is only natural that they will feel hurt and betrayed and frankly, they have every right too.
Nationally, Labour’s response is at best inadequate and at worse actively complicit with policies that will badly effect the weakest not just out of but also in work. For example, a regional benefits cap would exacerbate the problem of council’s trying to move the highly dependent out of their neck of the woods and perpetrating what, regardless of the intent and context, does end-up being, in practice, social cleansing. Meanwhile, this measure does nothing to address the real cause of the astronomical housing benefit’s bill, namely over-inflated rents and stagnating wages. It is perfectly possible to cut the cost of Housing Benefit to the state in a humane way, a way that would see no social cleansing and no families uprooted. Implementation of a Living Wage and rent controls (both of which Ken Livingstone is laudably promoting in his campaign) would have a dramatic effect on the benefits bill both in regard to HB and also cut the cost of other benefits, like Tax Credits. Couple this with investment in expanding the co-operatively owned affordable housing stock and you have policies which will really start to make a difference.
Of course, the government won’t do this because ideologically, it is wedded to the view that the private sector is the motor of economic growth and therefore it must be left untouched and Labour has yet to offer a coherent narrative opposing this Narnia politics which have to suffer being served-up as being ‘common sense’. This is something we need to address as a matter of urgency but we also need to bear in mind the wider issues Newham speaks of as we approach a set of local elections which is looking likely to be very prosperous for our Party. As we take control in more and more areas, we are increasingly going to be put into positions by the policies of central government where we are going to be compelled to attack our own supporters. Practically, local councils are not in a position to implement the rather mind-numbing dictum of ‘slower, slightly less further’ when it comes to austerity. Hard and fast austerity is a fact that central government will impose on Labour councils through its control of the purse strings; then, knowing no shame, they will try and pin the political wrap on us. Witness the comments of Grant Shapp’s re the Newham saga, comments that seem to forget that he, as Housing Minister has somewhat let the side down alot more than Newham Council by failing to expand the vastly depleted stock of affordable housing. The blame game will be one where the political stakes are going to get much higher. Labour councils need to be fleet of foot and inventive in doing what they can to soften the repeated hammer blows rained down on us by this swivel-eyed government and crucially they need to be getting the message out to residents about what is happening and why. Communication and plenty of it is going to be a vital weapon in this war. How well Labour councils wage this war could well be a key determining factor in our national fortunes. Knowing there is a trap is the first step to avoiding it, or in this instance of safely springing it and setting one of our own. After the celebrations have died down on May 4th, this is something we all need to be aware of and a discussion we need to be having in our local parties.