by Kevin Meagher
Twenty years ago, I took my father to hear John Prescott speak at Bolton Town Hall as part of his Red Rose tour. This was one of those “ra-ra” events on the road to the triumph of 1997. Optimism was high. Promises were easy. The Tories were a shower and New Labour had the answers.
In his inimitable podium-thumping style, Prescott told the packed hall that the capital receipts from council house sales of the 1980s – that local authorities were banned from spending – would be released in order to build new houses.
This was one of the party’s big policy promises at the time. It would address housing shortages, (that were already apparent), as well as putting hundreds of thousands of building workers, like my dad, back to work after the deep recession of the early 1990s, which had hit construction particularly hard.
It was the kind of rooted, common-sense measure that spoke directly to millions of voters like him at the sharp end of a Thatcherite economy that had left the North in the deep freeze. Now, it was our turn. Fast forward a decade though and things didn’t quite work out as planned.
By then, Prescott’s capital receipts pledge had turned into the Decent Homes Programme. A £19 billion pound effort to renovate dilapidated social houses with new bathrooms, kitchens and roofs.
In reality, it saw expensive contractors soaking up oodles of public cash. According to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, costs of the programme doubled to £38 billion by 2010, without creating extra new homes or the scale of jobs that sort of public investment should have done – (or, indeed, that Prescott had promised would happen that night in Bolton).
What the last Labour government did deliver was the lowest rates of new house-building since the Second World War. Unfathomably, Labour ministers were more concerned about helping Middle England’s property values to appreciate than they were in tackling housing shortages for first-time buyers or putting construction workers back to work.
As a result, people in the private house-building industry in the north of England like my Dad, core Labour people, had little to thank the last Labour government for. Yes, the NHS got a lot better and public services generally improved, but politics is, ultimately, contractual, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown simply didn’t look after the economic interests of people like him. A rising tide of growth through the Noughties, fuelled by public spending and skewed towards the South East of England, did not raise all boats equally. Especially the further north you went.
Others have their own tales, but this is mine. It’s why so many working class people I know no longer intuitively believe Labour represents their economic interests. They think the party is preoccupied with buying-off public sector professionals, caving in to corporate greed, pacifying the middle class and, yes, letting the idle sit on their backsides.
They don’t feel Labour empathises with the low-paid, non-unionised private sector worker (or self-employed bricklayer like my dad). Too often, all they hear are Labour politicians offering the inevitability of globalisation or European integration as reasons why it’s the harsh free market for them, but not for others.
What should be worrying Labour strategists following the utter shambles in Heywood and Middleton, where UKIP came 600 votes off capturing a safe Labour seat, is whether this is just a protest – a blip, a temporary phenomenon – or something structural and permanent.
There is no love for UKIP out there, but decrying them for being “more Tory than the Tories” when workers know full well that it was the last Labour government that opened the borders and made them fight for their living standards, simply will not cut it.
Yesterday, Ed Miliband started to correct this imbalance, promising to ban employers using immigrant labour to undercut wages or conditions of people here and to stop recruitment agencies only hiring foreign workers.
Is that even possible? We’ll see, but the stakes are now genuine. The risk is that if Labour is undergoing a structural haemorrhage of working class support – and nothing is done to correct it – then we are surely living in the party’s last days.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut