The row over Labour’s coronavirus housing policy for renters has blown up again. In a Young Fabians event written up by LabourList last night, Thangam Debbonaire as the new Shadow Housing Secretary offered a defence of the five-point plan recently unveiled by the party. But this only led to more controversy, after she described the alternative proposal – ’cancel the rent’ – as “un-Labour” and “really regressive”. The opening argument that said those “still able to pay their rent… would also benefit and they don’t need to” particularly angered activists.
Critics of Labour’s policy pointed out that their open letter specified cancellation would be “at the tenant’s request”. They also accused Debbonaire of putting forward an argument that opposes universalism more broadly; there are NHS users who have the means to go private, after all. Why Labour doesn’t simply emphasise point five – improving Universal Credit and temporarily increasing Local Housing Allowance – and make the case from there, remains unclear. There are hardly any backbench Labour MPs (check out our list of new PPSs), but a small group have supported a ‘cancel the rent’ early day motion tabled by Richard Burgon.
The importance of housing policy is more apparent than ever in this crisis. In London, some positive news has emerged: 17,256 affordable homes and 3,300 new council homes were started in the last year. These “record-breaking figures show that we are doing more than ever before to tackle the capital’s housing crisis”, Sadiq Khan said, “but we know there is a mountain to climb to kick-start the housing sector again as we ease out of lockdown”. And whatever Labour does at a local level, national decisions are still key. It has been revealed by Manchester Evening News that the government has quietly pulled funding for the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, which saw homeless people put up in hotels.
At the same time, the Daily Mail has paired up with government ministers to play divide and rule with working people. “Let our teachers be heroes” is splashed across the front page attacking “militant” teaching unions, ignoring that these unions are made up of teachers. All of this raises questions over whether Labour can simply assume that the country will naturally take a different attitude, post-Covid, to key workers and ‘what really matters’ in our society. Tory MPs are perfectly capable of considering public sector pay freezes while clapping for the NHS every week. Keir Starmer has the task of forging a new narrative, and this crisis makes that challenge more urgent but does not necessarily make it easier. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.