Monday, May 21, 2007

Labour's racist housing argument.

Margaret Hodge has done it again, claiming that if we don't deny immigrants access to housing, the BNP will make gains. She was supported in this by a leading Brownite deputy contender, Hazel Blears. This from a government that has run down council housing at every available opportunity, selling it off, ALMOing it, defying the wishes of local residents, defunding it, etc. You might have thought that Hodge would have learned from the last time she talked up the BNP, when its members were telling people that councils in Essex gave 50k to African families to buy local houses. The result of Hodge's intervention last time was a substantial boost for the BNP, who went on to win a dozen councillors in Barking and Dagenham on an increased turnout. Not only that, but the Tory vote went up as well - Labour crashed to third place. The BNP had previously had little presence in the area. If pandering to racism was the way to neutralise it, this would not have happened. But this is Hodge's argument:

She said white, black and Asian British families, on low incomes, who had lived in an area for several generations could not get their own homes and all felt there was an "essential unfairness" in the system.

"They feel that they've grown up in the borough, they're entitled to a home, and that sense of entitlement is often overridden by a real need of new immigrant families who come in, perhaps locked into private accommodation, poor accommodation, overcrowded."

Classic New Labour projection - the voters are the repository of Hodge's racist argument, not her. What they can allegedly be said to "feel" is supposedly paramount in Hodge's prima-democratic mind. Yet, she doesn't escape that easily: it is her assertion that immigrants are prioritised over local families, and she knows the exact pedigree of that argument. It was the BNP who initiated the lies that immigrants were given special preference for housing (the fictitious 'Africans for Essex scheme'). The second sense in which it is projection is the obvious one: New Labour is happy to destroy services and trample on any "sense of entitlement" until they can blame the immigrants for it.

When the local council privatised ten care homes for the elderly early last year, one of the first results was that the company threatened to close all of them if the already underpaid staff didn't accept cuts. Similarly, while the council has sold off homes under right-to-buy schemes, it hasn't replaced them. There is a huge demand pressure. Dagenham, for example, is one of the cheapest places to buy a house in London, and has consequently attracted the poorest families from across the city. Yet, the council has not done enough to accomodate the demand. It has one of the highest rates of council housing tenancy in the country, 35%. Like any other council, houses used to be allocated on the basis of a points scheme in Barking & Dagenham. The understanding was that if you took a flat, you would accumulate points and get allocated a house. But since they didn't bother building new council housing, this became sort of redundant - so while people from across London have rushed to purchase the comparatively cheap houses put on the market, families have been trapped in cramped tower block flats. Their one move to address this issue has been to replace points with a 'choice-based letting' system in which the council acts as an estate agent, advertising properties which you can 'bid' for, and the 'bid' is then assessed on the basis of waiting time and priority. It is a typical New Labour scheme modelled on market mechanisms that doesn't address the shortfall issue. At the moment, there is a huge development scheme taking place that embraces Barking and Dagenham, which is run by a private entity, the Thames Gateway Development Corporation. 60,000 new homes will be built - but all in the private sector, with a 'socially affordable' margin of houses. 6,000 of these will be available to Barking and Dagenham residents, but none of them will be council houses: and for most workers, they will be unaffordable.

Margarget Hodge's argument, coming as it does from a front-bench MP, and with backing from the Labour Party chairwoman, signals what may be New Labour's on-off way of dealing with criticisms of its disastrous housing policy. Credit where it's due, Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham, has rebuked Hodge this morning for racialising an argument that should be about provision. Cruddas' bid for the deputy-leadership of the Labour Party has involved him arguing for more council housing, a curb on private-sector involvement in the NHS and an end to the occupation of Iraq: he has received the backing of Ken Livingstone, Roy Hattersley and the leadership of 'Unite', the new union formed by the Amicus-TGWU merger. But he is pretty far down the bookies' list of contenders. So, it looks like Hodge and her 'appeasement' policy may win out.