AMIDST THE BREXIT FURORE, housing was very present at Labour Party conference. Important resolutions were passed calling on the party to rededicate its commitment to council housing as an essential, but not sufficient, step towards escaping the housing crisis. Several fringe meetings discussed the issue, although some of them seemed locked in a New Labour time warp.
Defend Council Housing and the Homes for All alliance attracted a good and varied audience, including Matt Western MP who called for public land to be used for 100% public housing, Doina Cornell, leader of Stroud council, saying “council housing pays for itself” and Moyra Samuel from Justice for Grenfell with a timely reminder that the atrocity “represents everything that's wrong with our society and housing policy".
But perhaps the most important contribution came from Stewart Smyth from the Homeless and Housing Coalition in Ireland, which comprises trade unionists, opposition parties, homeless charities, churches, tenant and civic organisations. On 3rd October, 10,000 people marched through Dublin demanding real government action to end the country’s housing emergency. On the same day, a resolution condemning the Fine Gael government’s impotence on the issue was passed in the Dail. Local protests have been going on around the country and the Taoiseach has been forced onto the defensive We need to learn from Ireland in the UK. Only a national, united, broadbased campaign - involving the whole of the labour movement - can win the action we need. For too long politicians have been able to get away with platitudes and hand-wringing when it comes to housing. Without fundamental change, the misery of millions will continue.
A Labour government in waiting must adopt a far more radical, ambitious strategy. The call to restore real council housing - not fake imitations - to the mainstream, alongside reform of private renting and housing associations, is growing. But the party’s housing green paper is a recipe for fudge. Its spending commitment is inadequate and there’s too much equivocation and pandering to vested interests.
Whether we’re in or out of the EU the country desperately needs a new approach to housing. Whatever happens with Brexit the next general election is likely to be close. Convincing people it can deliver the homes we need could be the difference between Labour winning and losing.
But we can’t just wait. The government produced its own green paper in August. It’s short on new ideas, but long on old threats. Cynically using Grenfell as justification, the Tories are talking about another wave of “transfers” - i.e. privatisation - of council housing and introducing league tables for landlords. We know where that leads - more attacks on public services while money is wasted on bureaucracy.
There’s a rising tide of housing activism around the country. We need to harness that energy and focus it on clear demands: including a general election now!
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)