A right based on need
Moral outrage against Braverman’s repugnant ‘lifestyle choice’ remarks is justified, but clearly not enough. Kevin Bean makes the case for the political economy of the working class when it comes to housing
In the end Suella Braverman’s ‘radical’ solution to the problem of homelessness - banning charities from providing the homeless with tents - did not make it into the king’s speech after all.
As she admitted herself, the ‘plans’ had only been pitched at the very last minute and so it was rather unlikely that they would be included in the government’s legislative timetable for the coming parliamentary session. Even so, for a proposal which appeared to be floated on the spur of the moment, her comments made the headlines for a few days and became a focus for both the media and the Labour opposition, not to mention homelessness charities and campaigners.
The home secretary’s ridiculous ‘argument’ that homelessness and rough sleeping are a ‘lifestyle choice’ was easily demolished by Shelter and others, who pointed to the rise in homelessness in the last 10 years as a direct result of Tory government policies and cutbacks in social housing, local authority and social service provision - not to mention the savaging of healthcare and related mental health services.1 The response quickly broadened out to include the impact on the homelessness figures of the cost of living crisis, unemployment and low pay, as well as unaffordable housing costs, rapidly rising rents and interest rates.2
Although the phrase, ‘lifestyle choice’, attracted most of the attention and justified anger, there was a lot more in her comments than that. Braverman highlighted that many rough sleepers were not from Britain and insisted that there was “no need” to sleep on the streets, given the alternatives and support available. Generously broadening her field of vision and point of comparison, she went on to point out how in parts of the US, such as San Francisco, “weak policies have led to an explosion of crime, drug taking and squalor”, thus both scapegoating rough sleepers for the ills of society and defining serious social problems in purely criminal terms. She was not going to let that happen here:
... we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad … What I want to stop, and what the law-abiding majority wants us to stop, is those who cause nuisance and distress to other people by pitching tents in public spaces, aggressively begging, taking drugs, littering, and blighting our communities.3
If Braverman’s vision of hell drew on the horror stories of social breakdown and moral collapse that she has picked up from her frequent meetings with the wilder shores of the American conservative right, it also drew on reactionary bile and vicious politics found much closer to home. In the thought-world of the Tory right and their cheerleaders in the rightwing press, the homeless are just one part of a much bigger picture of lawlessness and disintegration. Not only are foreign invaders in small boats threatening our southern coasts, but they now are pitching their tents in the centre of our cities and bringing in their wake social disorder, crime and new threats to “the law-abiding majority”.4
The home secretary has made this sort of nonsense her stock in trade, and so few have been surprised by her language or the hateful tone she adopts when talking about the homeless, migrants and asylum-seekers. As with her attempts to set the agenda by attacks on the demonstrations in support of Palestinian rights as “hate marches”, Braverman is blatantly positioning herself as the leader of the Tory hard right and a potential challenger to Rishi Sunak following a likely general election defeat next year. Sunak himself has similarly thrown red meat to wavering Tory voters by his pledges on immigration, small boats and crime, and the heavy emphasis on ‘law and order’ in an otherwise rather thin king’s speech.
However, Braverman has gone further in her rhetoric: it is clear that she is manoeuvring, with some suggesting that she is courting a sacking, and thus looking to the future rather than any immediate political gains. In explicitly refusing to endorse her language on the homeless, it is also clear that other members of the cabinet are staking out future positions as well. Thus, as the Tories gear up for next year’s general election, Sunak has to maintain control of a divided government and attempt to rein in Braverman (and others) whose eyes are on the leadership. She in turn will push back, using issues like “hate marches” and “lawlessness on our streets” to distance herself from the electoral disaster over which Sunak is expected to preside and so stake her own claim to lead the ‘real’, rightwing, Conservative Party.5
In the political controversy over Braverman’s comments, the more important issues of homelessness and housing were largely ignored. Some charities and opposition MPs took up the specific points raised by her comments on why the number of rough sleepers is increasing and the wide range of economic and social factors, alongside specific government policies and cuts, that create this crisis.
But homelessness was framed as an issue that only really affected the marginalised and the peripheral in our society. While the home secretary used the almost Victorian language of “the residuum” or “the criminal classes” to describe the homeless, the approach of many campaigners trying to eradicate rough sleeping frequently drew on an opposite, but equally 19th century discourse of poverty and its causes, and largely ignored the specific dynamics of housing in capitalist society.
Housing has long been a central question for the working class movement, with struggles for decent housing conditions, rent controls and the provision of affordable state and local authority housing developing from the mid-19th century. Engels in The housing question (1872) had discussed the relationship between capitalist development and housing, especially on how this impacted on the working class. Significantly, he drew attention to the ways in which both “bourgeois philanthropic” and state strategies to provide housing functioned, especially in Britain and Germany, in order to maintain the ascendancy of capitalism and embroil the working class within the political economy of bourgeois society.
While the nature of housing in contemporary Britain differs greatly from the situation that Engels was describing, the underlying political economy of capitalism remains essentially the same - although the politics of housing have taken a very different form, as the controversy over Braverman’s remarks showed.
While Labour MPs and housing campaigners correctly decried the home secretary’s attacks, this response was largely moralistic and offered little in the way of an alternative to the capitalist status quo. Yes, it is right to point out the impact on the rising levels of homelessness of cuts in social housing, local authority budgets and other services. But that is not enough: it is also necessary to campaign to restore the cuts and expand those services and link that to a militant campaign of working class action.
In other periods of housing crisis, such as after World War II and the 1970s, the left directly linked the housing shortage to the failure of capitalism to provide even the minimum of decent houses in the big cities. As well as calling for the requisitioning of empty property and under-occupied mansions and royal palaces, the left initiated militant campaigns to occupy such property and hand it over to workers who were in need. Such an emergency programme of requisitioning is one way to immediately increase the supply of housing for the homeless. Remember how local authorities adopted emergency measures, funded by the state, to provide accommodation for the homeless and get rough sleepers off the streets? It can be done.
However, our immediate demands on housing should not stop there. This will be a central issue in the forthcoming election. Both the Tories and Labour will promise to build more houses and to make it easier for people to ‘get on the property ladder’. There will be commitments to expand social housing and pass legislation to strengthen the position of tenants. On the basis of the experience of the last 40 or so years, as housing has become a key feature of a financialised capitalist economy in Britain (and elsewhere) and land and housing have grown in importance as assets and sources of credit for home-owners and developers alike, these promises will amount to nothing.
Instead, we need the decisive break with the political economy of the capitalist housing market and its replacement with the idea that decent housing is a basic right, as set out in the CPGB’s Draft programme.6 This not only points out how the provision of housing can be greatly expanded through the transfer of power and control over the means of production to the working class, but, like Engels in the 1870s and 1880s and the Austrian Social Democrats who built the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, it points the way to how we can build new, social forms of housing and new, democratic, collective ways of life, when the shackles of the market are finally removed from society.