Archive for October, 2012

Divide and Destroy (or how I learned to stop worrying and love blaming someone else)

October 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Do you watch BBC’s ‘Question Time’? I do. You may think this is no surprise as it’s fairly obvious I’m quite a political (superfurry) animal, but in all truth I have been trying to ween myself off it. QT, you see, has come to represent what politics has become, a faux bearpit where Tories spew bile in the name of ‘necessity’, Labour almost revel in the role of being the perceived saviours of the people, and the LibDems mew piteously in the middle with as much influence as they’ve ever had since the 1920s. This is politics of the soundbite, of empty vessels making the most noise, where the occasional salient point (usually made by one of the non-parliamentary panelists) is lost in a storm of sound and fury that serves only to strengthen the form of discourse now preferred by the establishment: lies, damned lies and divide and rule. Meanwhile, I watch and shout and get angry and subject my friends and followers to an endless stream of political invective.

It’s hardly productive.

And yet, after two weeks away, I found myself tuning in once again last Thursday. As usual there was much to shout at but amid the bollocks spouted by the identity confused Grant Shapps and the ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric from Caroline Flint I chose to focus my ire on ‘journalist and commentator’ Cristina Odone. Being the arch-Catholic of letters she is, Odone naturally had much to say on the abortion debate, but it is her thoughts on housing that I feel more qualified to comment on.

In its relentless attempt to persuade us that the mess made by our leaders and their allies in banking and finance is somehow our responsibility, our gracious government last week announced further swingeing cuts to the welfare budget including the plan to remove access to housing benefit for anyone aged under 25. The fragrant Cristina waded in with repeated cries of “Why should 23/24 year olds have an automatic right to housing?!”, stated that councils will rehouse single people at the drop of a hat, and that housing benefit for single people should only cover shared accommodation. The quick and easy response to this is: they don’t; they won’t ; it does. Should I be surprised that her statements went virtually unchallenged excepting an attempt by Flint to put her right that was shouted down by Odone’s exclamation of “I have done my homework!”? Sadly, I should not.

The current housing problems are an extremely complex area which have to be seen within the context of the last 30 years of neoliberalism and the ongoing attempt to reduce the state by turning public assets into private profit. Two million or more council homes have been lost since Right to Buy was introduced in 1982, all sold at a discount with the only profit being made by mortgage lenders. Due to the resultant scarcity of homes, where council housing was once a more cohesive mix of income groups, it is increasingly becoming the ‘haven’ of families dependent to some extent on welfare benefits as only those in most need can be assisted by local authorities. At the same time those authorities have lost rental income and so have had to cut maintenance programmes and raise rents. Guess what? Increased rents mean a larger benefits bill.

What about the money received from the sale of stock? Wasn’t that put into building new homes? Unfortunately not as proceeds went to central government coffers, later to be used by Labour as an ‘incentive’ for councils to transfer management of their stock to newly created agencies attached to local authorities but seen as the first step toward ‘outsourcing’ council housing.

This ‘ghettoization’ of council housing also has a far reaching effect in terms of social and welfare needs that impacts on local services such as hospitals, social services and schools. There has always been an incorrect and unfair stigma attached to those living in council homes, and in creating large concentrations of people perceived to be welfare dependent and/or ‘scroungers’ we are doing nothing to counter that view but are in fact giving further credence to the myth; and as the people that live there are increasingly disenfranchised and despised a vicious circle develops where all hope of ‘a better life’ is lost and dependence may increase. Governments talk of ‘aspiration’ but in reality they have been bludgeoning that out of us for decades and creating a self fulfilling prophecy.

The attack on state housing coincided with the beginnings of the fetishization of home ownership. This was no coincidence, though, the intention of Thatcher and her advisors was all along to try and create a new class of home owning, conservative voting working people. However, after thirty years of a falsely inflated housing market, the effect has been to price the ‘hard working families doing the right thing’ so beloved of all parties out of the market. And so they have to rent, but the private rental sector is so under-regulated that many working households have to use housing benefit in order to pay the ridiculous rents being charged by many landlords. The government trumpet about affordable housing but no such thing can exist where affordability is in hock to the market we have.

Put people in highly concentrated, poorly served housing (public or private sector) and they will suffer more from illness, unemployment, poor education and social problems.

None of the above is ever considered or even mentioned in mainstream politics or media as to do so would be to expose some of the real reasons for crisis and perceived ‘overspending’. The complexities would have to be addressed and thirty years of reverse redistribution upwards halted and itself reversed. The establishment cries that there is no money while desperately trying to cover up that all the money is now in private hands. Profit upon profit has been made at the expense of public assets and utilities put in place by our predecessors and still the elite blame us when their system collapses through greed and immorality.

But we fall for it. Never an edition of QT goes out without at least one audience member opining why should they have to pay for others’ dependence. We are falling prey to the doctrine of divide and rule when we should be aiming at the real scroungers, the people who are truly dependent on our wages, our taxes and our work. People like Cristina Odone, whose unchallenged, ignorant rhetoric and outright lies must be seen for what they are, not ‘sense’ and ‘reason’, but virtual class war. This applies not just to housing, but to the unemployed, to the disabled, to anyone who needs some form of assistance. There is no-one fighting for us within the establishment so we must fight for ourselves, not fight each other.