Tuesday, February 05, 2008 

This is Flint, Caroline.

Politicians and statesmen often get attributed statements that they never actually made. It's unlikely that Queen Victoria said "We are not amused." Lenin didn't directly use the term "useful idiot". Callaghan never said "Crisis? What crisis?" Norman Tebbit never actually said for the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work, but along with the Spitting Image puppet of him and cartoon depiction as an undead, skeletal figure (he has never fully recovered from being injured in the IRA Brighton bomb of 1984) attempting to sell the poll tax, it entered the lexicon. Caroline Flint has come up with nothing quite as catchy, but the message is almost certainly the same, and the Guardian's headline will do the job for both her and her party. Labour: if you want a council house, find a job.

As with most headlines, it doesn't really cover the full effect of what she said or the position she's apparently taken. The gist of it is, either you look for work and sign a contract to say that you will, or you won't get a council house. Flint repeated much the same message at a speech to the Fabian society today. (The Fabian society? Have supposedly social democratic organisations in this country really sunk so low?) This approach was apparently sparked by the revelation to Flint that half of those living in social housing are without paid work, which is twice the national average. When it comes to those under 25, it rises to three quarters.

On the face of it, there is an apparent problem that does in some way require fixing. The figures quoted though may not tell the full story. Are we talking about those who are the actual tenants, paying rent to the council, or just those who live in the house as well as the tenants? If so, it might go some way towards explaining why the numbers are larger. I don't have any figures to hand, but one would estimate that more people tend to live in an individual council home than they do in "private" accommodation. Indeed, we're informed that more and more households now consist of just the one person, younger singletons and the older retired generation alike. That may go some way to explaining the disparity.

Otherwise, it seems a typical New Labour solution right down to a t. As with those accused of anti-social behaviour, schoolchildren and parents with schools, and who knows, maybe even all of us once the government gets round to deciding exactly what our "rights and responsibilities" are, those who are on the waiting list for a council house (and it's usually a long wait) will be required to sign a contract stating that if they aren't in work they'll be expected to seek it, as well as undergoing a "skills audit", which probably sounds more threatening that in would be in reality. The government appears to be obsessed with either belittling or infantilising everyone; call it the sweets equation, or the Santa threat. The parent tells the child to behave or they won't get any sweets, or alternatively, that if they aren't a good little boy or girl, that Santa won't come. The difference is that they tend to be empty threats, especially the latter. With New Labour, you can bet that it won't be anything of the sort.

Flint has been accused of stigmatising council estates and those who live in them, and it's difficult to disagree with that conclusion. Certainly, the quotes she's given in the Guardian show both a lack of understanding of council housing works and how the system has been evolving, or rather been privatising as of late:

"It would be a big change of culture from the time when the council handed someone the keys and forgot about them for 30 years."

If there was one thing that councils don't tend to do, it's forget about those living in their housing. If they did, there wouldn't be buses going round where I live with the pre-festive message (I might paraphrase slightly) of "Looking forward to Christmas/buying presents? Pay your rent first. We do evict!" Nor have they forgotten about them when it comes to proposals of whether to selling the housing to a private landlord, or to stay under local government control, as Defend Council Housing have been campaigning for.

Then there's this:

"If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration. It is a form of peer pressure."

What utter rubbish. I'm sure some are defeatist about it, but for every person that is there's another 3 or 4 that want to get out of the cycle of not working. The key word there is of course "aspiration"; both Labour and the Tories deeply care about the aspirations of the upwardly-mobile lower and middle-classes, who demand less tax and policies tailored directly to them as they make up the all important swing voters, but for those on the council estates who make up the bulk of Labour's vote, they can be played off, stigmatised and chastised for their fecklessness and welfare dependency, which is naturally all their own fault. It certainly also helps that the Mail and Scum lap up such rhetoric.

Less prominent but no less questionable was Flint's proposal for jobcentres to moved onto the estates themselves. Reasonable enough, and I'm sure they'll fit in just fine alongside the Ladbrokes, Coral, BetFred and others that have prospered under New Labour's relaxation of the gambling laws and which now seem to make up the majority of the shops on such estates. More typical was that the private sector will of course be given more of a role, as after all, you can't trust the public sector to be tough enough, especially when you get investment bankers called Freud to do the appropriate reviews.

It has surely come to something though when it's the Conservatives that appear more moderate on such a matter, although Grant Shapps didn't exactly shoot it down, just instead that it was political kite-flying and that it was unworkable. That isn't the point though; for all Flint's pleading that this wouldn't affect the fact that council housing is a safety net, it suggests where government thinking is going, and that's away from further building of social housing, despite how badly it's needed. Quite simply, it costs too much while those who live in it aren't giving enough back. You'd expect that sort of argument to be made by the Tories, but not from Labour, even New Labour. Flint and the prime minister's spokesman have since backtracked slightly, saying that the intention was starting a debate, even a provocative debate in Flint's case, but that seems to only suggest that they weren't expecting such a fierce backlash, or at least the intensity of it. Whether it really has changed minds or not is something entirely different.

Coming after last weekend though, when Progress said that Labour could no longer rely on portraying the Conservatives as the "nasty party", it suggests something else. That Labour seems to be more than happy to try and earn that sobriquet for itself.

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