Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Jon Cruddas - fewer speeches, more grassroots campaigning needed

Jon Cruddas' speech was interesting and thoughtful as ever, but politically it was a bit of the worst of both worlds. It generated a load of headlines about how he had said Labour must move to the Left / return to Old Labour, while equating this with a load of worthy but dull policy proposals about windfall and transaction taxes, High Pay Commissions and Fair Employment Clauses. So it antagonises the people who don't like the idea of Labour moving to the left, without giving any popular or eye-catching policies which might appeal to people who don't follow politics closely.

That said, his criticism that New Labour had an absurdly restricted and ideological view of 'Middle England', which caricatured them as only interested in acquiring wealth and equating aspiration with individual success is spot on. Some lefties bought into this caricature, attacking New Labour for being obsessed with 'swing voters' and neglecting Labour's traditional supporters.

The real 'Middle England' is much more interesting than the caricature of Rational Aspirational Economic Man. Just to take one example, it is my experience that many people who own their own homes or who bought their council houses back in the 1980s absolutely loathe and detest those paragons of aspirational virtue - buy-to-let landlords.

Buy-to-let landlords represent the sort of Thatcherite 'greed is good' attitude that people got sick of by 1997. Benefiting from rising property prices, they would buy up family homes and rent them out to students or immigrants, or convert them into flats. Bad landlords just cared about the money they earned, not caring if the front garden was a mess, and getting away with the bare minimum that they had to spend on maintenance.

People who had worked hard, saved their money and chosen to live somewhere nice valued the sense of community in their area, and were hard hit by these 'aspirational' landlords. While the landlords raked in the cash, local residents struggled to find anywhere to park (as all of a sudden four or more cars appeared outside every property), had to walk past gardens strewn with rubbish and hardly got to know their new neighbours. While they had to pay increasing council tax bills for local services, many of the landlords who owned the next house along just passed the cost on to their tenants.

And, of course, while some private landlords look after their tenants and took the trouble to look after their properties, there is hardly a student or migrant worker who hasn't got at least one horror story of a bad landlord who ripped them off.

People who say that the political parties are too keen to pander to Middle England should take a look at the response. A government which has hardly been slow to pass new laws and other regulations has barely taken an interest in this area. When Labour MP Andrew Smith called a debate on this subject, the Tory and Lib Dem MPs said that there was too much regulation and that landlords should be given tax breaks.

At one time, I did a survey in the area I represented. Buy-to-let housing came out as the joint top issue of concern (together with crime and anti-social behaviour) and 96% of people wanted more action to be taken to make landlords pay more towards the local area, greater regulations to prevent landlords buying up homes and other similar policies.

Local campaiging on housing not only attracted people who wanted to defend their community, but also helped to build community and a sense of solidarity. The residents' group that spoke up against planning applications to convert family homes into flats also raised money to help people in council flats whose homes were flooded, and people who met each other to complain about how the area was changing now organise regular social events for pensioners and young people in the area. (And at the last local elections, Labour got 60% of the vote).

Now policies like preventing people from buying up lots of homes, forcing them to pay more towards local services and giving tenants greater rights could be described as 'left-wing'. But for most people, they'd be greeted with 'at last, about time too'. Policies which get Tory voters to campaign for the Labour Party, and which build alliances between owner occupiers and tenants are hardly extremist - what was extremist and disastrous was the decision by "centrist" politicians to allow buy-to-let landlords to amass their fortunes inflating a massive property bubble.

And in some areas where Labour ignored this issue (or teamed up with the National Union of Students and British Property Federation on the other side), right-wing populists moved in and stoked up resentment on the grounds of race, blaming landlords from particular minority communities or migrant workers for the problems.

This is the sort of thing which is currently missing from the debate about Labour's future (and the left more generally). There are a lot of 'top down' ideas generated by clever, politically-engaged people, each with the backing of one campaigning group or another. But there is too little which comes from the experiences, priorities and ideas of ordinary people, which starts with what they know and builds with what they have.

On current predictions, Jon Cruddas is going to get beaten in next year's elections. He's made many useful contributions to the Labour Party - not least in building alliances across the parliamentary party and hopefully making key people realise that they don't have to have a big factional fight after the next election - and will hopefully make many more. But for the next few months there should be no more speeches, newspaper articles or thinkpieces, and no more palling around with James Purnell and other chums.

Instead he should have a single-minded devotion to his re-election campaign and working hard to win the support and listen to people in Dagenham and Rainham. And after his successful re-election, he can use that experience to come up with ideas and policies which are significantly better than those on offer yesterday.


At 7:32 am , Blogger Dave Semple said...


At 3:00 pm , Anonymous tim f said...



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