Friday 15 May 2020

The Dim Wattage of Thangam Debbonaire

There is a light that never goes out, so sang Morrissey. Unfortunately, there are some that never properly switch on. A case in point is Labour's new shadow housing spox, Thangam Debbonaire. As renting and the rights of tenants is a hot button issue, especially now covid-19 means the return of huge unemployment figures and a dent in incomes for millions more, it would be nice to know Labour is on the side of a core component of its voter coalition. Sadly, where clarity is needed and our people could do with knowing the party is on its side we find equivocation and timidity.

Speaking at a Fabian event on Thursday, Thangham said cancelling rent payments is "un-Labour" and "really regressive". What could she possibly mean? Responding to criticisms of Labour's current position, which grants renters two years to make good any arrears, she said "there are people who are still in work, still able to pay their rent. And if you just cancelled rent, they would also benefit and they don’t need to." In other words, it's fair for the poorest to continue struggling with the deleterious impacts this has on mental health and family life in case someone else gets a few extra bob. She even cites herself as one of these people who doesn't deserve rent forgiveness, which is interesting seeing how her London flat is paid for, um, under the MP's expenses scheme. Now, there are practicalities to consider if rent payments were cancelled for some time. The state could, for example, pick up the tab if we're really worried about landlords themselves getting put out into the streets. But whichever way you dice it, this policy isn't is regressive.

Being the forgiving sort, this elementary misunderstanding of what regressive means could be put down to the milieu in which Thangam circulates. There is an overlapping cohort of Labour MPs and centrist opinion who thinks conditionality is progressive and universalism is reactionary and unfair. I'd humbly submit these people have never had to jump through the hoops social security payments demand. Work capability assessments as the hallmark of a civilised society, anyone? In this occasion, there's no overlooking this idiocy. You see, Thangam has form. Far from being "un-Labour", rent strikes were constitutive of the party itself. Perhaps Thangam would like to step into a TARDIS to lecture these malcontents, or better yet get to know some history about the party she affects to represent? Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. In an exchange with Ash Sarkar, Thangam tried to get her expelled from the party - before she had even joined - because "being a communist" means she had to be a member of the Communist Party. And being told once to 'get in the sea' on Twitter circa the time that popular insult was everywhere, she openly and publicly declared this was a death threat. Cynical? Thick? Ignorant? You decide.

Yesterday, a couple of worthies noted Keir Starmer had built a more competent team around him. The significant gaps in Thangam's understanding will see that assumption tested to destruction over the coming months, this can't be heaped at her feet. She's responsible for the gaps in her understanding of the party but she isn't a free agent. Her position on housing policy is the leader's position on housing policy. The question then isn't really why Thangam isn't much cop, but why Labour's position isn't. And the answer is, I'm afraid, Keir Starmer's reasonable reasonableness strategy. He is determined to play politics by the rules in the belief this will net him better press coverage than previous Labour leaders and, obviously, boost his chances at election. Not upsetting the landlord strata defuses an anticipated angle of attack from the likes of the Mail, etc, thereby making it easier to win over Tory voters. That the shadow cabinet contains landlords of its own is entirely coincidental.

Needless to say, this is troubling for the same reasons why Labour couldn't simply carry on facing two ways over Brexit. Labour is dependent on the new working class of immaterial labour. It is disproportionately younger, precarious, locked out of property acquisition and at the sharp end of our systems' myriad inequalities. Corbynism's accomplishment, despite its failings, was to re-orientate Labour toward this rising class and make the party respond to their concerns. However, in the absence of other collective organisations integrating new supporters and voters into the party and the wider labour movement their adherence is uncertain and conditional. And this conditionality, surprise surprise, comes in the form of not doing their interests over. Now, a cynic might look at the super majorities Labour has in the big cities and think we can trade blocks of a few thousand here and there for some nice middle England seats, but it doesn't work like that. A partial demobilisation in the cities of this vote also means partial demobilisations everywhere else. There are renters in the medium sized cities and towns, and immaterial workers in the constituencies Labour has to win back. In other words, triangulation of Blairite vintage is not on the cards. It's impossible.

The question is does Labour's leadership realise this? Paul Mason was a handy ally for Keir to have during the leadership contest, and the hire of Claire Ainsley of The New Working Class fame suggests there's an awareness at the top that the party has to at least nod in the direction of travel established under Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately, having dim bulbs anywhere near a crucial brief like housing doesn't speak of the leadership's seriousness and it's this that could cost the party dearly.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

The Labour Party membership is significantly baby boomer and middle class. Inevitably this means that a fair few of them are owners of second properties in which they rent out. And they have a great adherence to this source of passive income (so good luck with having it sharedon The Labour Party Facebook group).

There is a willingness to defend the position of the Labour Party on this and their own property rights even to the point of saying that being a landlord is hard work involving unblocking toilets. My daughter and her housemates are paying £1350 per month in case any of them does a big jobbie. It is a risible notion. Even worse is the line of defence that without landlords there would be more homelessness. Apparently the houses would disappear with them.

Partly there will be a concern with their own security and their family's inheritance where the welfare state has been significantly dismantled and interest rates are low. But people who receive a return significantly above cash rates need to expect to carry a much greater level of risk than a cash flow dislocation for a few months.

david walsh said...

My guess is that rather than trying to do some hard thinking about this issue, we are trying to keep on the right side of the Daily Mail. And that means looking as if we are hard on rent arrears. But, but, but it is not just hard nosed private landlord's. There are social landlords too, and I know from my own contacts that most of the smaller ones are frightened stiff about income streams as they are, with a big chunk of these drying up as people are getting into arrears. Cancellation and rent redemption is the "big" answer, but is t fiscally fair if measured against those tenants able to pay ? This is a classic case where a previous generation of Labour policy makers would have been able to come up with a scheme that is not socially regressive, but balances out forms of means testing applied in a humane way - which we have lived with for generations.

Anonymous said...

"My guess... we are trying to keep on the right side of the Daily Mail"

A policy of appeasement: maybe, just maybe, if Labour throws everything and everyone under the bus then the Daily Mail (and the Sun, Express, etc) will finally like us? That would be pretty stupid.

The Daily Mail is right-wing propaganda. The only way to be on its "right-side" is to actually BE a right-wing party, essentially indistinguishable from the current Tories or Faragists.

Anonymous said...


You have correctly identified what I do and my allegiance to the labour party being conditional.

This policy, you are correct, puts me off. Not because I would be directly affected, but because I know my peers and younger peers would be.

If this type of policy announcment continues I will not remain in the labour party for very long. However, I do not know if I am representative of anything, really.

BJF said...

If we can work out who needs 2years to pay off arrears, then we know who needs a rent freeze. The undeserving might benefit argument is false.

Blissex said...

«The Daily Mail is right-wing propaganda. The only way to be on its "right-side" is to actually BE a right-wing party,»

That's the recipe for PASOKification, by the Mandelson Tendency entrysts. Keir Starmer's cabinet is a return to form. My usual quote from Lance Price 1999-10-19:

Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.

The plan is "There Is No Alternative" to thatcherism, with New Labour as a "centrist" thatcherite party, the LibDems as a right-wing thatcherite party, and the Conservatives as a far-right thatcherite party. That's why Corbyn was whacked: a non-thatcherite leader, however mild, is simply not acceptable, and the very core of actually-existing thatcherism is property rentierism. A commenter on "The Guardian" wrote:

I'm nearly thirty, which means I grew up under Major (just), Blair and Brown then Dave and Nick. In my considered opinion and the opinion of my peers - you couldn't fit a fag paper between them.

Kriss said...

The average age of Labour Party members is 53 - that's a way from being boomers, that's Gen Xers. The squeezed generation (at least, the women), having kids later and then looking after aging parents alongside school-age children.

And the majority of landlords own one or two other properties - as someone who does this myself due to a temporary work move - you don't earn that much from it. After mortgage, agency fees, repairs, ground rent and service charge it barely scrapes £100 pcm. That marginality is why people struggle with the prospect of giving up three month's rent, I would guess, since leaving aside the mortgage it actually costs money.

Jon Hegerty said...

I raised the problematic policy on my CLP Facebook group. I was stunned by the support for the policy from the countless landlords who were Party members! "I can't afford to give my tenants a rent holiday" "This is my pension, I'll go bust" etc etc. Absolutely stunning. I had no idea how many private landlords there were in the Party. Kinda explains a lot...

Blissex said...

«After mortgage, agency fees, repairs, ground rent and service charge it barely scrapes £100 pcm.»

HA! The usual shameless propaganda from landlords, whether knowing or just instinctive: the mortgage is not an expense of being a landlord, unless it is established that renters should not just pay rent but also buy the property as a gift for the landlord, which is indeed what the tories believe most fondly.

Also repairs are not a cost of renting out the property, but of having the property, that is it is a capital cost like the mortgage. Also so is ground rent.

In a reasonable economic environment rent should be around 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of the mortgage.

In addition one should look at the return not on the price of the property, but on the deposit, which is often a small fraction of the mortgage, and include the return given by capital gains, which are all but government guaranteed, which is itself a valuable plus.

With a 25% deposit BTL usually returns a net 20-30% compound per year on that deposit, depending on location.

Blissex said...

«"I can't afford to give my tenants a rent holiday" "This is my pension, I'll go bust" etc etc. I had no idea how many private landlords there were in the Party. Kinda explains a lot...»

Then this is a good time to quote again Tony Blair on "Southern Discomfort" related topics:
I was canvassing in the Midlands on an ordinary suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra, self-employed electrician, Dad always voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, he said, but he bought his own home, he had set up his own business, he was doing quite nicely, so he said I’ve become a Tory.

which is sort of the moment in which he became a member of the Mandelson Tendency clique.

The political problem, as I often say, is that Labour policies of the 50s-70s created a lot of lower-middle and middle class people, with safe jobs, good pensions, able to afford a car or two and a property, and many of these promptly turned tory, eager to pull up the Labour-provided ladder, even if they stayed in the party.
To some extent this myopic turnabout is understandable: currently in the south a small 2 bedroom flat, as those affordable (in particular with Help To Buy) by a couple with a combined income of £40-60k before tax, can give property capital gains of £30-40k per year, work-free and tax-free, which is much, much bigger than any conceivable pay rise or improvement in social services that trade unions or a Labour government can give them.

What Labour has so far got largely wrong in both ways is how to deal with that situation.

Blissex said...

«how many private landlords there were in the Party. Kinda explains a lot...»
«Labour policies of the 50s-70s created a lot of lower-middle and middle class people, with safe jobs, good pensions, able to afford a car or two and a property, and many of these promptly turned tory»

Another thing that explains a lot is the pensioners on good final salary pensions won for them by their trade union membership and their vote for the Labour wing of Labour here some interesting reflections on a related topic:
My late father-in-law used to joke about the pensioners jugging up in the pubs and clubs of South Wales. He reckoned the old folk drank more than the youngsters. It certainly seemed that way last time I was in his local Wetherspoons just before noon on a Tuesday lunchtime and found the place full of sixty- and seventy-somethings tucking into pub lunches.
A CEBR report for Saga, published last month, found that the over 50s account for a greater share of household spending than they did a decade ago. [...] I touched on this when The Economist called time on Britain’s old industrial towns last year. I have no firm data for this but I reckon pensioner spending is one of the reasons why some of these towns have avoided economic collapse. Many of the old industrial areas have a high proportion of retired people. Their money is keeping these places afloat. In a sense, the industries that once sustained these towns are still present, in the form of their pension funds. As my father-in-law explained, in his part of South Wales. many of his contemporaries had pensions from the government, the old public bodies, such as the National Coal Board and British Rail, or the big industrials, like Ford, BOC and British Steel. The young people pulling pints, running around with plates of food and packing shopping bags were kept in work by the generous spending of the active retirees.

Do these fixed income (that is, rentier) pensioners still think like when they had jobs and fighting for better salaries and benefits? Currently many of them think that better salaries and benefits for workers are going to bite into their living standards, and that they are insulated from how the economy does or wages go. In older times they relied, especially female retirees, on their sons and their wages, but not anymore. A symptom from a conversation between a young woman and her father reported by a friend of hers, another one of my usual quotes:

Friend: How did you vote then, Dad?
Dad: I voted Out.
Friend: Dad! Why did you do that? The economy will crash! It’ll cause chaos!
Dad: That won’t bother me hen, I’m retired.
Friend: But it’ll affect me! What about me?
Dad: (Long silence).

Lost Tango said...

That may be the case at the start of the process, but asias the years go by, the rent you can charge increases outright while the mortgage stays the same and is eventually paid off. Plus the capital value if the home increases. Property rental is a long term investment and three months' rent is pretty insignificant over the long term.