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.