Britain’s Broken Democracy: Tories Become UKIP, Media Ignores Labour Gains, Labour Continues Estate Demolitions

7.5.18

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What a generally dispiriting occasion Thursday’s council elections were. On housing, which is the most pressing issue in the lives of over half the population, there was almost no acknowledgement, from either of the main parties, that we are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of affordability and of security of tenure. Labour councils, even those that are actively engaged in demolishing council estates and replacing them with new developments with private developers, from which local people will largely be excluded, were largely undamaged at the polls, while the Tory heartlands generally held firm. 

Pundits observed that UKIP were almost wiped out, with establishment commentators suggesting that this was some sort of triumph of common sense in merrie olde England, whereas the truth is that the post-Brexit Conservative Party under Theresa May has actually become UKIP, and, as a result, the truth is considerably more alarming than lazy pundits suggest. As for Labour, the mainstream media furiously tried to portray their modest gains, and their considerable overall majority of councils and councillors, as some sort of sign of failure, which it very obviously isn’t. Some independent analysts suggested, plausibly, that Remain voters sent a powerful message to the Tories, and to Labour under the hazy, instinctively Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, that the EU was significant battleground in the elections, but in general the elections played out as a showdown between the two big dogs of English politics, Labour and the Tories, in which overall, there was little change, because, overall, little change is actually possible. In our wretched, complacent first-past-the-post system, very little is actually to play for, and while the damage this inflicts on a broad platform of viewpoints is always apparent in a general election, local elections somehow get far less scrutiny, even though their outcomes are often even more damaging for democracy.

In Lewisham, where I live, for example, 60% of those who voted cast their votes for the Labour Party, but Labour walked off with 100% of the council seats. 

How is that supposed to be fair?

The bigger problem, however, for those of us who see housing as the most pressing political issue (putting aside, for some of us, the constant migraine that is Brexit), is how it was so blithely ignored. For the last 20 years (with a slight wobble after the global economic crash of 2008), we’ve been in a housing bubble artificially maintained by central government and the banks, and since the Tories came to power in 2010 they have used their cynical and opportunistic austerity programme to try to wipe out all social housing, a plan which, if successful, will return us to Victorian levels of poverty and exploitation. The Tories have starved councils of funds to support social housing, leading some of them — and, specifically, Labour councils as well as Tory councils — to knock down their own council estates to provide developers with new opportunities for immense profits, whilst also social cleansing poorer members of their communities out of the area altogether. The Tories then took aim at housing associations, which had been manoeuvred into position to largely take over council housing by Margaret Thatcher, cutting their funding so that the majority of them have become developers instead, increasingly sidelining their commitments to social housing along the way. 

Rent differentials in London, based on figures for Lewisham, provided by Sue Lawes for Crosswhatfields.On affordability, there is, simply, no legislative protection to protect private renters from the unfettered greed of landlords, and whilst it’s obvious that the most radical and intelligent solution is a massive, not-for-profit social homebuilding programme, the political consensus is to keep inventing new sticking plasters to try and shore up the whole unwieldy edifice of greed and exploitation. With market rents rising giddyingly, as greed becomes more and more fashionable, politicians and housing providers have found themselves paralysed, first by Boris Johnson’s decision to set “affordable” rents at 80% of market rents — the single biggest Goebbels-style act of outrageous black propaganda in domestic political life — and, since then, through efforts by Sadiq Khan (who became Mayor as a response to the unaffordability of modern London) to set up all manner of sub-divisions of rent — see the attached graph for the figures for Lewisham for ‘London Affordable Rent’ and ‘London Living Rent’ compared to social rent on the one hand, and private rent one the other — that tend to obscure the blunt truth — that social rents of £95.54 for a two-bedroom flat are affordable for the majority of Londoners, who earn less than £20,000 a year, while the ‘London Affordable Rent’ of £152.73 a week, and the ‘London Living Rent’ of £225,46, although less unaffordable than the market rent of £323.08, are not affordable for these ordinary working people, whose concerns are not addressed by the Labour Party politicians who traditionally cared about them.

In Lewisham, where social cleansing is part of the political landscape, I have found as a campaigner that people we meet understand, and are frustrated or angry about it, but when it came to voting many of them either didn’t turn up, or dutifully voted Labour. Admirable resistance was mounted by Andrea Carey Fuller, the Green candidate in New Cross Ward, where most of the current demolition plans are centred, but although she secured nearly a thousand votes, she came in fourth to the three existing Labour councillors, and, as noted above, with just 60% of the vote, Labour secured every single seat in the borough, even squeezing out the Greens in more middle-class neighbourhoods, where, in the past, there were six Green councillors. 

Elsewhere, the disappointments were similar. In Southwark, where the Labour council is the leader in estate demolitions and social cleansing, and the Tories were left with no councillors, council leader Peter John bragged that, “For the first time in history, Southwark is a Tory-free zone”, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to imagine that a Tory council in Southwark could be more destructive of social housing than Labour.

There were successes. Five Green councillors were elected in Lambeth, where the council is competing with Southwark as a destroyer of social housing, and there were, it should be noted, places where Labour’s reputation was not so tattered — in Haringey, for example, where the Labour council’s proposals to enter into an unprecedented deal with Lendlease regarding the borough’s council housing led to a massive grass-roots resistance movement that de-selected councillors supporting the deal, or created an environment in which they de-selected themselves. 

In general, however, the election results have not led to solutions being found in council chambers, but out on the streets and in estates threatened with destruction, where they have been all along, with campaigners who understand the significance of the struggle to prevent an unprecedented epidemic of social cleansing that could easily lead to tens of thousands of Londoners being removed from their homes, and forced out of the areas in which, in many cases, they have lived their whole lives. 

I hope you’ll join the resistance, if you haven’t already.

Those housing figures

Figures from the Resolution Foundation showing percentages of home ownerships and rents by family in 1961 and 2017.At the top of this article, I mentioned housing being the most pressing issue in the lives of over half the population of the UK, and I wanted to make sure I wrote a little more about that statement. It’s based on figures produced by the Resolution Foundation in September 2017, establishing that the number of ‘families’ (which “may be a single person or a couple, along with any dependent children”) in owner-occupied properties is 51.6% of the total — 27% owned outright, with 24.6% in the form of mortgages. The remaining 48.4% of ‘families’ lives in rented accommodation — and the breakdown of those figures is of interest. 

They show that only 13.6% of families live in social housing (7.2% in council housing and  6.4% in housing associations), while 18.4% live in private rented housing, either alone or with others.

The Housing Resolution provide figures dating back to 1961, which establish that the highest percentage of social housing was 27.7% in 1977, while peak home ownership was about 57% in 2003-04.

See the figures in the graphic above for a comparison between 1961 and 2017.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my response to Thursday’s council elections in the UK, particularly focusing on housing, and lamenting how, although housing is the pressing issue in the lives of at least half the population – those being fleeced for private rent, or those living in social housing, who face a cross-party assault on genuinely affordable rents, and, in many cases, their actual homes – the main parties behaved as though housing issues don’t exist. For the most part, voters stuck to their tribal loyalties, voting mostly for the Tories or the Labour Party, even though the Tory government is an absolute disaster on housing, and even though Labour councils pose a particular threat to social housing, as so many of them are actively engaged in the demolition of council estates. Meanwhile, other parties, like the Greens, for example, who took a robust stand in defence of social housing, did not see their principles rewarded with anything like the enthusiasm they should have received. Our political system is broken.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, Richard Matz wrote:

    Always the hot knife cutting through Bullsh*t, Andy Worthington!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Richard. Your support is greatly appreciated!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    Thank you Andy. It’s so very depressing and getting worse.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Anna. What passes for our political culture has decided that the only area of profit left – after the 2008 crash exposed the criminality of most of what passes as “financial services” – was housing, whether through mortgages on hideously overvalued properties, or wildly exorbitant rents. It is a cannibalistic exploitation of the many by the few, and resisting it is going to require serious commitment from a large number of people. It clearly isn’t enough to hope that Jeremy Corbyn will get to be Prime Minister and wave a magic wand and everything will be OK. We are in an unprecedented time in which those with money and assets have a colossal sense of entitlement and a callous sense of superiority to those less fortunate than themselves.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Matz wrote:

    For social housing campaigners in Lewisham, Lambeth, Southwark & elsewhere, the re-election of monolithic one-party Progress councils is an absolute disaster which a superficial coating of Corbynite fairy dust will not make any more palatable.. Overall, the outcome of the elections is a damning indictment of how the widespread hijacking of community action, street protest and its misdirection into the ineffectual electoral politics of corrupt, compromised & whipped councilors has failed to effect any meaningful change. Let’s not forget, many of the 60 odd plus % of people who didn’t vote are not so much apathetic but profoundly alienated from this process by the lack of any real alternative within this limited sphere. We need to think again about how to reach this percentage. Great post, Andy Worthington.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. A great analysis. And also, I’d been complaining about Labour in Lewisham, for example, getting 100% of the council seats with just 60% of the vote, but the reality, as you point out, is even worse, because, on average, only 36% of the electorate voted, so they got 100% of the seats from just 22% of the eligible voters..

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Liesel Wilkes wrote:

    So very broken…

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Liesel. And, primarily, it feels to me that there’s something genuinely dangerous about the extent of people’s apathy, as it disempowers them as well as allowing second-rate politicians to continue pretend that they have some sort of mandate, when they clearly don’t.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    I wouldn’t say they’ve become UKIP … well, maybe yeah but I travel in hope… I could imagine Kemi Badenoch as a future Conservative PM for example. Even in the Conservatives is the potential to step back from their present trajectory towards this dark white nationalism that has created so much trouble and reform themselves back to respectability

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    There is a centrist part of the Tory party, obviously, David, but they’re drowned out right now, or whipped endlessly into submission. It’s quite something to me that I’m in complete agreement with Michael Heseltine over Brexit, when Heseltine was very definitely an enemy of all I held dear when he was Thatcher’s attack dog in the 80s. Fundamentally, the silence from decent Tories in the face of the party’s rightward drift remains deafening, and I have as little sympathy for the dutiful Tory party drones who make up the vast majority of their MPs as I do for Labour MPs who claims to care for the workers but do everything they can to further a neo-liberal agenda that only intensifies the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, I can’t argue with that

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    John Hamilton wrote:

    Andy, 160,000 electors in Lewisham did not vote for any elected representative. We need single transferable vote for local elections in England now, just like Ireland (NI and republic), Scotland and now Wales.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, John, although I think the number of non-voters is almost 126,000, not 160,000. The Mayoral election page shows the total electorate as 199,555, with 73,573 voting – just 37% of the total. Isn’t it funny, though, how neither the mainstream media nor the political party machinery generally makes a big deal about how few people actually vote? Interestingly, there are breakdowns of voter turnout in the council elections on the individual pages for the various wards on Lewisham Council’s website – but with an exception for New Cross Ward! http://councilmeetings.lewisham.gov.uk/mgElectionElectionAreaResults.aspx?EID=7&RPID=43176450&TPID=43176473
    So yes, reform is needed, John, but I’m not convinced the single transferable vote is best. I’d prefer a form of PR that adds up all the votes and divides them according to the percentage of votes cast. That said, it’s all academic, isn’t it, because neither of the two big parties has any interesting reforming the voting system.

  15. Ian Bone says...

    by- election LEWISHAM EAST- GO FOR IT ANDY

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Nice one. Good to hear from you, Ian!

  17. Tom says...

    The same problems exist here. The demand for Section 8 low income housing is so high that in many areas they’ve stopped waiting lists. If you’re disabled and on a fixed income, it’s almost impossible to pay a lower rent for a place that’s actually safe to live in.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, unfortunately, Tom, those making the decisions swap notes, across national borders, about what they’re managing to get away with. We’re all threatened unless we’re rich.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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