Labour’s blind spot on right to buy will prove costly

by Atul Hatwal

Three words: right to buy. Three simple words that unhinge the Labour party.

The Tories have set the most obvious and well sign-posted trap for Labour by extending right to buy to social housing tenants. A trap that was first set over thirty years ago to lethal political effect.

As news of this latest 80’s revival broke online on Monday night, Labour activists, MPs and Labour supporting journalists tweeted themselves into angry apoplexy.

Meanwhile, the leadership ran for cover. Emma Reynolds, Labour’s shadow housing minister, released a statement with the headline, “Another uncosted, unfunded, unbelievable announcement from the Tories.”

The Tories’ sudden pledge to spend £8bn on the NHS might not be believable, but does anyone seriously think they will not extend right to buy? Come on.

Right to buy is more than just a housing policy; it embodies a set of values and delivers a precision targeted retail offer. Labour’s guttural online reaction demonstrates a desperate lack of understanding by the party on both counts.

In terms of values, right to buy is about aspiration and personal freedom: the dream of owning your own home and taking control of your life, outside of the purview of the welfare state.

The media debate about extending right to buy is not about technocratic policy but whether the parties are for or against home ownership, whether they believe the state should or should not allow people in social housing to buy their property.

Labour complaints about the policy might be well founded. It does indeed do nothing for the growing army of private renters who will not benefit.

The discounts under right to buy mean that tax payers will be subsidising social housing tenants in a way that would be regarded as scandalous if it were for anything other than house purchase. After all, no one is proposing offering social housing tenants discounted cars.

But this is an election campaign not a policy seminar.

The polarised debate leaves little room for rational discourse. Pro or anti are the only options on the table.

And when voters read articles where Labour is cast as opposing right to buy, they will draw the logical conclusion.

Regardless of whether the public think the specific idea of extending right to buy to housing association tenants is a good idea, Labour will be viewed as standing for the nanny state rather than individual freedom and opposing home ownership.

At a retail level, these twin values of aspiration and personal freedom will soon be starkly brought to life for hundreds of thousands of voters in social housing.

Already, Tory candidates in marginal seats have been busily tweeting their Labour counterparts on whether they agree with extending the right to buy to tenants in social housing.

In the coming days, Tory leaflets will be dropping onto these tenants doormats proclaiming that Labour would not allow them to purchase their property.

Tory canvassers will ram home the point that Labour is denying them the opportunity of buying their own home.

No-one likes to be told they cannot do something. Especially when that something involves life-changing financial benefit and home ownership.

At a very personal and pragmatic level, perhaps more than any other policy, right to buy has the potential to swing votes to the Tories that they would otherwise struggle to attract.

Labour’s response today means it has little to offer these switchers as an alternative other than to talk in the abstract about the challenges of housing market supply and demand.

Instead of the paroxysms of rage from Labour’s tweeters, and the deflection of Labour’s leaders, the right line to take would have been to strongly and forcefully back the extension of right to buy.

This should have been front and centre in the headline of Emma Reynolds’ statement.

Labour’s primary goal should have been to neutralise the idea that there is any substantive difference in principle with the Tories on extending right to buy.

This would then have enabled Labour to pivot onto the practical: the way the Tory numbers don’t add up, the likely fall in housing supply as a result of the Tories’ version of the policy.

The real dividing line should have been supply not right to buy and who the voters would trust more to build the new social housing needed, Labour or the Tories?

This is the contest over the Tory manifesto that Labour could and should have won.

But it didn’t. Instead, this weekend, the Tories will be targeting social housing tenants in marginal constituencies publicising their new policy while Labour canvassers on these doorsteps will be left wondering what to say.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

Tags: , , , ,

9 Responses to “Labour’s blind spot on right to buy will prove costly”

  1. Adam Gray says:

    Atul, You’re not wrong except there’s a gaping problem with your argument. You admit the policy of bunging a one-off and entirely undeserving set of tenants £100,000 of taxpayers’ money is “scandalous”. But your argument seems to be: Labour must support this scandal or be seen as anti-aspiration.

    You are right that Labour is pitched on the wrong side of this argument, but it could have spent the last five years championing a special form of home buy for public housing tenants who wish to buy. That is: buy someone else’s home in the existing private sector like the rest of us do (or hope to do), not buy their council home.

    The response to the (long heralded) Tory announcement on right to buy should not have been “reheated Thatcherism”. It should have been “home ownership is falling under this government and this is our plan to reverse that”. It should have been reminding the vast majority who aren’t housing association tenants that THEY aren’t lucky enough to be given £100,000 by the state to buy their home. Why isn’t there a right to buy for private tenants? And it should have worked out how much the right to buy subsidy has cost each of us since 1981 – it’ll may well be five figures each.

    Labour is on the wrong side of this debate not because opposing right to buy in itself is wrong; nor because it is impossible to present the case without sounding like we’re in a “housing seminar”. Polls show a big majority of voters agree that right to buy is dreadful, damaging, unjust and unfair. Heck, even big business and the Telegraph have made that very case today: we’re not pushing this boulder uphill.

    It’s just that Labour has spent the last five years actively trying to look anti-aspiration in every respect, so has no alternative retail offer to that segment who still want to become owners (and not everyone does – I know plenty of content council and HA tenants). They should have. It’s not that hard to come up with. That’s Labour’s failure.

  2. Blairite says:

    According to the Guido Fawkes blog, the policy has been backed by Marc Stears, Ed’s adviser, and it was first proposed by the IPPR (one of the report’s authors is Cllr Andy Hull who now works for Class thinktank). Maybe parts of the party should rethink their opposition?

  3. Robert says:

    I disagree. Labour is right to oppose the right to buy for housing association tenants, which will not help the current housing crisis.

  4. John Reid says:

    Right to buy was in labour a 1959 manifesto, the Toeies who were building more council homes in power at that time, than we ever did were opposed, After Gaitskells death in 1963′ it was forgot,
    It was suggested again in 1970′ Heath secretly a one nation Tory was against Kwith Joseph,wanting it, so was Mrs Thatcher saying it gave the working class such a leg up, the lower middle class, who’d strived for a mortgage all those years, wouldn’t get a thing out of it

    It was suggested again in 1974 by labour, Wilson Callghan ecstatic about it, but Benn and 2 new unknown backbencher so who first got on to Labours NEC in 1976, Called Skinner and Kinnock, rejected it for 10 years
    In fact Kinnock in 1982 tried to reverse Labours opposition and idea to buy them all back in the 1983 manifesto, but it was to late

    For the record we never bought ours, but at the same time, being in the rare situation 35 years ago, of having a double income, as both my parents worked when I was a nipper, we were being told by others in the Labour Party,we shouldn’t have been living in a council home,as my parents had 2 incomes coming in.

  5. Tafia says:

    Nobody believes either party on housing policy.

    Everyone knows we need to build at least 250,000 new dwellings (not including replacements) – or 1.25 million over the life of the next Parliament. People hear politicians drone on about this but never hear the answers to the two basic questions – where and when.

    Until politicians say where these houses are going to be built, and when they are going to be built (bearing in mind 1.25 million must be completed by 2020) then people just regard the politicos as exactly what they are – bluffing f***wits.

    There’s no prizes for trying in this game – you produce the goods in full or you are rubbish.

  6. John Reid says:

    It was Harold Macmillan in 1986 who first knocked this with his don’t sell the family silver,
    All we did in our 13 years in power was the don’t turn Nationwide building society into a bank idea,and prevented Murdoch from buying Manchester united
    More recently various Police staff jobs,were stopped being turned over to G4S,becoming part of the civil service instead,

  7. swatantra says:

    Atul makes an important point that Right to Buy is heavily subsidised by the Govt, ie the Taxpayer, ie you and m; you would be silly to turn down a 60% discount offer whatever your political leanings. Its an offer which tenants, with little security will feel forced to take up. Its not so much about aspiration as about getting hold of a property in your own name from which you know that you can’t be turfed out; and its about investing in bricks and mortar when everyone knows that property prices will increase in the long run.
    But the net effect of R to B is that Affordable Housing is reduced, and there is lack of incentive by builders to build affordable housing. So it is counter productive. And that point needs to be got across to a gullible public by Labour. The Tories are conning the public; its scam worse that pyramid chains.
    If tenants want to buy then let them, but not at the public expense. Let those tenants buy in the open marke,t in the private sector, and don’t reduce the pool of council or housing assn stock.

  8. Madasafish says:

    Tafia is entirely correct in his scepticism about the target of building 250,000 new dwellings a year.

    There were 137,000 new starts in 2014

    So 250,000 new buildings a year means new starts means an 82% increase… which means doubling all the skilled tradesmen and doubling the output of necessities like: bricks , mortar etc.. Importing bricks is usually uneconomic due to weight.

    Bricks and mortar require factories to build them. And they require electricity to run them. Given the lead time for a new factory including planning is c 3 years and a new power stations (we face a shortage by 2020).. have a leadtime of 7 years as a minimum..

    One closed factory has been reopened at a cost of £25million to produce enough bricks for 25,000 new homes.

    Lots more needed.

    It’s not impossible but it requires business to have faith in the ability of a future Government to justify the large investments needed..

    Given Labour’s prevailing anti business rhetoric….

  9. Michael Worcester says:

    Greens and SNP are ready to end austerity ie spend borrowed money. Labour voters are betting that Balls will ditch fiscal responsibility as soon as Labour get power and have many ambiguous and therefore unfunded policies in the manifesto will enable this (Mamood poor performances defending the holes on Daily Politics is excruciating). The Conservatives were the first to abandoned fiscal discipline with unfunded tax cut promises and now extra NHS spending.

    It will all end with a reality check from the bond market and more cynicism from the electorate. It is no wonder that UKIP is looking to 2020 and plan to move from the expected second place in a hundred Labour seats.

Leave a Reply