Thursday, February 07, 2008

Making the poor pay

HOW LABOUR hopes to win the next election beggars belief if the new Housing Minister’s latest crackpot idea is put into practice. Caroline Flint, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, tells us that unemployed council and housing association tenants should seek work or face eviction.
She claims Labour wants to break the link between social housing and long-term unemployment. According to her department half of all households living in social housing and of working age were without work, and three quarters of these are under 25, while new statistics show that the number of unemployed council tenants has risen by 20 per cent to 55 per cent since 1981.
Flint says she wants to “begin a debate” about how to best serve the needs of people who live in social housing. But Flint’s mealy-mouthed concern for the unemployed is matched with venom and contempt for those far less fortunate than herself when she goes on to say: “Social housing should be based around the principle of something for something.”
It is, of course, a meaningless gesture that even the Tories, who normally grab any chance to screw the poor, have pointed out. Grant Shapps, the Tory Shadow Housing Minister who slept rough at Victoria Station over Christmas as a publicity stunt, points out that the Flint plan was meaningless as her proposals cannot be legally enforced.
“Ministers and local councils have a statutory duty to house homeless families with children and so they can’t boot them out of their houses without then providing alternative accommodation,” he said.
So why bother? Well the only obvious explanation is that Flint and her kind believe that this is the way to woo middle-class voters: reinforcing the prejudices of the Tory gutter press by implying that most benefit claimants are work-shy idlers living off the state.
Naturally enough the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, has backed the housing minister. “We’ve been left with a system that actually traps people on benefits,” they say. But people aren’t trapped by benefits. They’re trapped by class.
Some New Labour leaders certainly would like to bring in what they call a “radical overhaul” of the benefits system. What lies behind these weasel words is “workfare” – where the unemployed are forced to perform menial tasks in exchange for their welfare pittance – commonly used in Australia and the United States. It’s only one stage removed from the despicable workhouse system that existed in Britain until 1930.
The Labour Party was established to represent the unions and defend the rights of working people throughout the country. The great council house estates, the “homes fit for heroes” that went up between the wars, and the new towns built after the Second World War to end the slums of London and our other great cities, were monuments to Labour planning.
Now the campaign to restore powers to councils to build new affordable housing is left to the Labour Representation Committee and pressure groups while Brown & Co try to outbid the Tories by scapegoating people on benefits to get the reactionary vote. It’s an old trick and it doesn’t always work for the Tories either. Labour has no chance. The reactionary vote will go to the reactionary party. Labour needs to win back the masses who swept the Tories out of office in 1997.
It will only do that if it can offer real material improvements for working people in housing, education and health. Labour needs to win the active support of the millions in the trade union movement and that will only happen if the Government ends its policy of job cuts and wage restraint in the public sector and restores free collective bargaining by repealing the anti-union legislation passed during the Thatcher and Major eras. Above all Labour needs leaders who come from the rank-and-file and who reflect the demands of the organised working class. That fight-back begins in the unions at the grass-roots in every factory, office and council estate and above all in building a strong communist movement in Britain.

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