It’s time to offer real alternatives, says John Healey

In its first few months the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has all but conquered the media with the message that tackling the deficit trumps everything. We have a government of deficit disciples who have narrowed the terms of political debate to create sufficient cover for an ideological drive to slash public spending and reduce the role of the state.

Labour is right to fight the government hard on this, pressing for impact from the savage spending cuts and regressive tax changes. But opposing the government is only one side to the task of leadership in opposition.

The least people will expect is for us to argue for alternatives and propose new Labour policies. There are economic alternatives to defying the deficit.

At a time when the UK recovery is weak, and growth in other countries is faltering, boosting growth will mean more people in jobs; paying tax rather than drawing benefits; helping pay down more of the debt as the economy grows more strongly.

That’s why Ed Balls and I launched a new housing plan this week – using half the £12 billion better than predicted public finances to invest in housebuilding and refurbishment. Every £1 million of public money also supports 11 new jobs in construction or 17 jobs in maintenance. It makes good economic and social sense. And it’s part of the housing policy overhaul that Labour must propose.

One reason we lost in May was that we failed to listen properly to some of our own supporters, ignoring key concerns or responding in terms they didn’t recognise. A case in point was housing.

Put simply, for all that we did achieve in the later years of government, we didn’t do enough to meet the housing need and aspirations people have for themselves and their children. We didn’t do enough to help first time buyers or deal with rogue private landlords. And we didn’t do enough to return councils to the forefront of housebuilding. We made progress, but our action either came too late or did too little to win over disaffected hearts and minds.

We especially failed to win over the real squeezed middle. Not the professional ‘middle’, whose struggle to support their children through university is an obsession of the national media. But rather, the seven million hard-working households either side of the median income with earnings between £14,500 and £33,800.

Here are some ways that Labour’s future housing offer might start to put that right:

*            For families who rent but have long-term ambitions to own their own home, help them save for a deposit – through ‘rent plus’ affordable homes, or the provision of housing-specific ISAs.

*            For people who are creditworthy but without parents able to pay their deposit, promote wider availability of Labour’s successful HomeBuy Direct – underwritten by our nationalised banks.

*            For everyone, toughen controls on bad private landlords and ensure the availability of affordable rented housing – both through guaranteeing fair systems of allocation and, crucially, tackling the sheer shortage of new homes.

Labour needs to illustrate to those we lost and those we never won over how in housing policy and beyond we can offer a more optimistic future.

John Healey is shadow housing and planning minister and MP for Wentworth and Dearne

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