Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Labour's 'opposition' to bedroom tax is phony

The campaign against the “bedroom tax”, with over 660,000 households due to start losing significant amounts of housing benefit from Easter Monday, has exposed the duplicity of a Labour leadership that has tried but failed to hijack the protests.

Labour is not actually opposed in principle to the ConDems’ punitive cut in benefit for those in social housing of working age deemed to be over-occupying by having a spare bedroom. In fact, New Labour introduced the criteria for private-sector tenants in 2008. The Coalition uses this fact to justify extending the policy into social housing.

Shadow works and pensions secretary Liam Byrne has actually linked a fake opposition to the bedroom tax to plans for tougher workfare. He was roundly booed at a recent rally in Birmingham. Byrne was behind the abstention by Labour in parliament  last week over the vote on retrospective laws to enforce workfare.    

By contrast, left MP John McDonnell was cheered at the rally for declaring that Labour councils should refuse to implement the policy. His is a lone voice.

If tenants are deemed to have one spare room, the amount of rent eligible for housing benefit will be cut by 14%. If they have two or more spare rooms, the cut will be 25%. This will mean an average loss of about £14 a week for council tenants. Those who rent from housing associations are facing an average loss of about £16 a week.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has said the local authorities the party controls will refuse to evict people who get into arrears as a result. No doubt the SNP has one eye on encouraging people to vote “Yes” in next year’s independence referendum. Whatever.

Meanwhile, not a single Labour council in Britain has made the same declaration (Green-led Brighton has, however). In Dundee, the SNP led-council was the first to pass a policy to stop evictions, but this was opposed by Labour councillors.

Just as Labour councils have busily gone about implementing ConDem cuts in local spending, destroying jobs and services en route, they will enforce the bedroom tax. Labour leader Ed Miliband has no intention of instructing them to do otherwise, although if he did the tax would become unenforceable.

For Labour, it’s about people moving to smaller homes as a “solution”. As shadow cabinet member Helen Goodman said: “We’ve said that the bedroom tax should only apply if people have been offered a smaller place to live and turned it down because, obviously, it is better to use the housing stock more efficiently.” Yet all the figures indicate that smaller properties simply do not exist in the required numbers.

In Liverpool, where 6,700 tenants of Riverside Housing Association alone face severe benefit cuts, senior staff acknowledge that the “impact on communities could be profound”. They, naturally, intend to carry out their orders should evictions become necessary.

Tenants groups across the city have come together to spearhead the national campaign against the bedroom tax. Labour set up its own “campaign” in a bid to limit the protests to petitions and pleas. Tenants saw through this and are planning their own Assembly on April 6 to plan further resistance.

Ultimately unaffordable rents are the reason for a housing benefit bill of £23 billion a year. This huge sum is, in effect, a subsidy to landlords of all types. With social housing rents due to rise further – thanks to New Labour’s policy of “convergence” across different sectors – the attack on tenants is certain to increase.

The obvious alternative is to slash rents, build more homes at affordable rents, requisition empty properties, socialise land ownership and create an economy founded on decent wages for ordinary workers. Labour’s policy, by contrast, is to encourage “responsible capitalism”, a society that only exists in dreamland. As we have said many times, what is the point of Labour?

Paul Feldman
Communications editor


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