Soulless conditions

A simulacrum of Thatcherism

Paul Demarty is unimpressed by David Cameron’s housing policy, and calls for serious thinking on the left

The left, in its broadest sense, has reacted to David Cameron’s flagship policy platform - the extension of ‘right to buy’ to cover housing association homes as well as state housing proper - with anger and disgust: hardly an unreasonable reaction.

Perhaps more appropriate, however, would be grim laughter. For how many times does anyone who dares to think even that trade unions are in some sense a Good Thing get accused of wanting to take Britain ‘back to the 1970s’? Even Ed Miliband gets accused of ‘1970s-style socialism’ every week or two. And yet, and yet - here we have a Conservative prime minister quite unabashedly playing to past glories, to rapturous enthusiasm from the very same quarters. Back to the 70s, bad; back to the 80s, good. Hope that’s clear.

A striking feature of Cameron’s scheme is that it is, on the face of it, quite illegal. Housing association homes are, by definition, owned by housing associations, not the central state or councils. Thus they are private property, protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. This clause usually does not play out in our favour, of course; but, having already privatised substantial parts of the social housing stock, the government can no more legally force its owners to sell those assets than it can expropriate the financial industry.

There is also the small matter of charities law, which stipulates that charities may not sell their assets at significantly below market value; and again, on the face of it, this policy looks like just such an attempt to force housing associations to breach their legal obligations. Given all this, not to mention the basically mortal threat that the new ‘right to buy’ poses, it is hardly surprising that housing associations do intend to challenge it in the courts, should it ever navigate its way through the hung parliament most observers expect come the May 7 general election.

Nostalgia factor

Exactly how Cameron and co would defend their bright idea under such circumstances is unclear. It is one thing to go off on wild rants about the ECHR if the issue of the day is the personal rights of some notorious jihadist; quite another thing to suddenly find out that the sanctity of private property is some fatuous Brussels diktat. Nonetheless, it remains within the powers of the government to throw enormous piles of money at the problem, an activity for which the soi-disant austerians, Cameron and George Osborne, have recently discovered an unseemly enthusiasm.

Concretely, we suppose it would work like this - Joe Bloggs decides to buy his association home. He pays a heavily discounted price. The rest of the discount is made up by the government (thus the association does not sell at below market price), with a little extra. Enough associations might be swayed by the short-term benefits - especially if boards of trustees are suddenly packed with braying Tories - to make the policy fly.

Still, it is a long shot politically - given the tumult likely after the votes are counted next month - and a long shot legally. It even turns out that, in 2013, then housing minister Kris Hopkins derided the idea as a “liability to the public purse”. So what exactly is the point of putting it front and centre? Why, precisely the nostalgia factor: what we have here is a kind of simulacrum of Thatcherism, distinguishable from the real thing only in that the actual legacy of Thatcherism makes it untenable, unreal.

If it does come off, meanwhile, we have a nice big stride in what has been the objective of Tory housing policy since Thatcher’s day at least - in essence, returning the political economy of housing to the state it was in during the 19th century. For the working masses, the opportunity to rent from private landlords in a situation of extreme insecurity; for a layer of the petty bourgeoisie, the opportunity to own their own home; for a layer of the upper middle classes, a substantial private income from renting to the aforementioned poor folks; and, for developers, the right to pursue enormous profits at the expense of everyone else. Trebles all round!

If further proof were needed, there is the accompanying pledge to force councils to sell off their most valuable real estate, recycling the profits into creating more ‘affordable housing’. The latter clause gives it a progressive fig-leaf that will fool nobody who knows the first thing about ‘affordable housing’: how that is commonly set at 80% of the average market price, which in cities like London and Oxford amounts to a definition of ‘affordable’, shall we say, somewhat at variance with that of the latter city’s famous English dictionary. Not that it matters: the law around this is utterly unworkable, and the well-remunerated lawyers of well-remunerated property developers do a good job traducing their ‘affordable housing’ obligations.

The result is the same: taking a basic human need, and rendering it simultaneously a matter of acute insecurity for the subordinate classes in society, and a source of immense profit for a section of the bourgeoisie. The toxic legacy of the defeat of the working class in the battles of the 1980s - defeats that, in this country, go collectively under the name of Thatcherism - inches us back towards the squalor of housing as it once was, and indeed as it has been throughout most of the history of the capitalist system.

Back to the 70s

This happens against the background of bourgeois parties’ insistence on competing to promise the highest rate of house building in the run-up to elections. Presumably the council sell-off wheeze is designed to back up the Tories’ own starry-eyed projections (we note that, in 2010, the Tories pledged to restore house building to its pre-crash levels, but missed the target by about 80% of the rise required).

This spectacle cannot but remind us of the glory days of Butskellism, when Harold Macmillan’s Tories famously pledged to build more council homes than the Labour Party. It is worth examining the post-war era, for no other reason than that it presents a peculiar interregnum in the history of capitalism: faced with Soviet tanks on the banks of the Elbe and energetic working class activity on the home front, European and to a lesser extent American society was transformed with the creation of the so-called ‘welfare states’.

Housing policy was a central battleground in this process, due in no small part to the brute devastation of the war. In this country, council housing reflected the political imperatives of the age: a plausible option not only for workers, but for middle class tenants, council estates were socially mixed and in many ways an unspoken ‘default’ means of obtaining shelter.

Stephen Moss, writing in TheGuardian (April 17), has a very rose-tinted view of this era, having grown up on a south Wales council estate:

The estate, which would these days be labelled “sink”, was stable and generally content (almost everyone had a decent job in the local steelworks, which helped); the large greens in front of each block were communal, well tended and great for games of football, rugby and cricket, often involving 20 children or more.

In truth, there was a reason so many council tenants were seduced by Thatcher’s right to buy: like the other ‘socialistic’ tendencies of post-war capitalism, council housing was organised in an alienating, thoroughly bureaucratic manner. The management of the estate was an unaccountable set of petty Bonapartes; blocks of flats were thrown up with scant regard either for aesthetics, tenants’ needs or in some cases basic structural integrity (hence disasters like Ronan Point).

Nonetheless, Moss paints an eloquent picture of the consequences:

Some of the new buyers had the money to maintain their properties; others didn’t. The big collective greens were enclosed, so each house could have a large front garden, in which they would keep motorbikes, cars, caravans and other bric-a-brac ... Worst of all was what happened to the people who couldn’t afford to take up the incentives to buy, or didn’t want the hassles of home ownership. They ceased to live in council housing. They suddenly found they were living in social housing - we should ban that wretched term - and stigmatised as a result.

It was not the enormous expansion of council housing in the post-war era that gave rise to the ‘sink estate’, but Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’. Coupled with a determined war on the organisations of the working class and assaults on the powers of local government, which today give Cameron’s plans a terrifying plausibility, the result was a division between those carried along with the rise in private home ownership and those left behind.

We arrive at the peculiar situation of the present day: as we have said, on course for a return to housing conditions (adjusting for technological progress) of the 19th century, only not this time purely by the natural course of the system, but by determined initiative of the state.

The left, then, is right to raise a complaint or two at Cameron’s plans. Yet we cannot retreat into our own nostalgia: just as sink estates follow from Thatcherism, so Thatcherism follows from the stultifying, authoritarian forms of the post-war settlement. A clutch of determined capitalist class warriors is not enough to achieve the current bonanza for developers and buy-to-let rentiers; there must be the possibility of dividing their more numerous opponents.

Too often, the leftwing response is merely to get involved in the numbers game - multiplying the number of new homes on offer from Labour and the Tories by some factor or another, and slapping (as per the post-war era) the word ‘council’ between ‘new’ and ‘homes’.

Left Unity is a somewhat encouraging exception: yes, its housing policy is rather too sprawling, composited as it is from several sources (a paragraph on the specific housing needs of LGBTQ people adds nothing, and is there only because it happened to be somebody’s hobby horse circa a year ago), but by the same token it is at least comprehensive, taking into account also the criminal underuse of existing real estate, the need for recreational facilities and generally a landscape in which human life, properly so called, can take place.

Communists seek a wholesale transformation of society: a goal that must surely entail a transformation of the human relationship with the built environment. The amiable isolation of the suburban bungalow, and the grimmer isolation of the abandoned council estate: both must disappear, in direct contradiction to Cameron’s facile plans.