Labour's plan to eject squatters won't fix Britain's broken housing system

It is the causes - not the symptoms - of the housing crisis that Labour needs to crush

Share

When Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell famously took to the Conference stage to slam the European Common Market and was met with rapturous applause, his wife whispered: “All the wrong people are clapping.” Her husband’s strategy was damned because it was the politically undesirable who were cheering him. The ambitious politico could flip this rule: that if “all the right people are booing”, they have arrived: it is a sign of credibility, a willingness to take “tough decisions” (usually a euphemism for “making life more difficult for other people”). Get a nod from a Daily Mail editorial, and let those lefty loonies froth; throw in a few verbless sentences (“forwards not back!”), vacuous platitudes (like “fairness” – whoever campaigned for “unfairness”?) and power thumbs, and before you know it, you’re the next Tony Blair.

Perhaps that is how criticism of the Labour leadership’s war on squatters will be judged: “a rare example of Labour standing up to its loony left”, as one Tory blogger put it. Who likes squatters anyway? Aren’t they a bunch of jumped up posho wannabe Old Bohemians, living it “rough” off daddy’s trust fund, subjecting communities to drug-fuelled raves until the early hours? Or freeloading petty thieves with foreign accents, shamelessly scrounging while their hard-working neighbours slave away to pay rents and mortgages?

It is Labour’s Chuka Umunna – normally associated with journalistic cliches like “rising star” – spearheading this crusade. Last year, the Tories criminalised squatters in empty residential properties. The first to be thrown into a prison was 21-year-old Alex Haigh; he had been looking for work in housing crisis-ridden London. “They were very quiet – I think just living in a room wanting a roof over their head,” one neighbour told the media at the time. “I don’t think they were doing any real harm.” But such convictions are not enough for Umunna, who is demanding the Tories criminalise squatting in commercial properties too.

Perhaps this is written more in sorrow than anger: that’s my privilege, you see, because my fears and insecurities don’t include wondering where I will sleep tonight. Umunna could take time to speak to Britain’s growing homeless community: after all, Clement Attlee was won to socialism after witnessing poverty in London’s East End. Umunna has championed those fighting against the blacklisting of construction workers, so it would be wrong to portray him as a politically soulless man without redemption.

But this is ugly stuff indeed. On Friday, he approvingly tweeted a piece written by a journalist to explain why he was calling for draconian Tory anti-squatting laws to be strengthened. It dripped with xenophobic nudges and winks: of homeowners whose “life has been made hell by neighbouring foreign squatters, including eastern Europeans.” It is an approach all too common in austerity Britain: use extreme examples and pass them off as the tip of the iceberg, tarring an entire group in the process. Indeed, anti-social behaviour is hardly the preserve of squatters and few would dispute the need to have means to deal with it. It doesn’t follow that all, or most, squatters are guilty of it.

Umunna’s following tweet tapped into an all-too familiar strategy. “It’s not fair that many people work hard and struggle to pay for their housing whilst others think they should be allowed to squat for free,” he announced. A striking feature of Cameron’s Britain is the redirecting of people’s anger at their plight towards others at the bottom of the pile – immigrants, “shirkers”, public sector workers – anyone except those actually responsible. People struggle to pay for housing because their wages are low, private landlords are ripping them off, and social housing has been decimated. Ejecting squatters will not change this one jot.

Calling for the criminalisation of victims of a housing crisis that New Labour helped to create, now exacerbated by Tory austerity, is perverse. There are now five million people stuck on social housing waiting lists. The legacy of the failure to replace sold off council housing mixed with devastating Government policies has had predictably grim consequences: a 58 per cent increase in families housed in bed and breakfasts in four years, and a six per cent increase in homelessness in the last year alone. According to Shelter, there are 288,000 privately owned long-term empty homes in England, and yet it is squatting that is regarded as anti-social behaviour, rather than selfish landlords leaving property abandoned and space unusable in the midst of a housing crisis.

According to the homeless charity Crisis, nearly four in 10 single homeless people squat at some point. There is no glamour involved: generally no amenities or furniture; cold and damp conditions. Well over a third suffer mental distress. Laura, an ex-squatter, tells me that, in her experience, squatters often left property in a better state than when they occupied it. These are people who need help, not criminalisation. Some will cry: “but it’s someone’s property!” In doing so, they decree that property – even empty property – is worth more than human beings.

These policies will have consequences. Homeless people already freeze to death slowly, quietly on our streets. One was 35-year-old Daniel Gauntlett earlier this year in Aylesford, Kent, after the police prevented him from breaking into an abandoned property. More will die, but the right to leave a property in a state of disuse while thousands have no home will be defended, at least.

The travesty is that Labour now have more detailed policies on kicking people out of homes than putting people into them. Its proposals do not even come close to building the 250,000 houses a year required to meet need. There are existing powers for local authorities to seize empty homes to rent as social housing: these need to be strengthened and used. There are nowhere near enough empty homes to meet need and they are often in the wrong place, of course. Labour needs to argue for councils having power to build large numbers of good-quality houses, giving all the right to a secure, affordable roof over their heads. It would save money in the end, too, as a secure stream of rent comes in and taxpayer-funded landlord subsidy comes down; and as the social, health and educational consequences of poor housing are dealt with. No-one should have to squat, but it is the causes – not the symptoms – of the housing crisis that need to be crushed by Labour.

What do these sorts of interventions say about our political elite? There is little dignity in building a political career by stamping on the faces of the poor, though admittedly more than shivering to sleep in a urine-stained passageway. Such posturing is unlikely to win Labour new recruits, but fuels the image of hordes of feckless, anti-social scroungers. The more such sentiments are pushed up the agenda, the more the Tories benefit: politics ends up on territory where they always win.

Tactics aside, it is difficult not to mourn the prevalence of politics with the heart ripped out, where the poorest people are demonised and legislated against, where people’s basest prejudices are appealed to in the name of positioning, manoeuvring, of building careers. That’s politics, some will say. But it shouldn’t be.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea