A lot of independence supporters are getting excited today about this clip of Labour shadow-cabinet MP Helen Goodman telling the BBC that Labour would keep the bedroom tax. They’re right to highlight it, but most are doing so for the wrong reasons.
Goodman’s position is that Labour WOULD still implement the hated tax, but would only penalise people for over-occupying their housing if they’d been offered smaller accommodation and refused to move. Opponents of Labour are observing the hypocrisy of the party raging against the tax in public while admitting they’d retain it, which is fair enough, but also misses the real point.
In keeping with Labour’s studied, deliberate vagueness about most of what it says, Goodman conspicuously fails to mention whether tenants would be penalised for refusing ANY move to smaller accommodation, or only within the area where they already live. So it’s not clear if Labour would still levy the tax on someone in London who was told to move to Sunderland, say.
(Nor whether Labour would make any more humane allowances than the Tories are doing for people with foster children or non-residential carers or any of the numerous other victims seen in horror stories about the policy.)
But much more revealing is something Ms Goodman says halfway through the clip.
“In the short to medium term we did need to bring down the housing benefit bill, and we had said that we WOULD reduce the rents which were paid under Housing Benefit in the private sector, and that’s where the rents were really spiralling up very fast”
This is a reference to the introduction of Local Housing Allowance in 2008 under Gordon Brown was in effect a Bedroom Tax for private tenants. As noted in the Wikipedia entry for LHA (our emphasis):
“The amount of LHA awarded depends on:
- the number of bedrooms deemed to be required by the claimant, and
- where they live (which determines the market level of rents within this area)”
The double standard of Labour protesting about the Tories doing to social-housing tenants what Labour had already done to private tenants is obvious. But much more crucial is the way it demonstrates that Labour have surrendered, and continue to surrender, the ideological ground to the Tories.
It’s unquestionably true that the housing benefit bill is cripplingly high. That’s because it’s an enormous subsidy of private landlords by the state. If you’re a party supposedly committed to wealth redistribution and social justice, that’s the easiest circle in the world to square – you impose rent controls.
There ought to be no difficulty at all for ANY political party, let alone an ostensibly left-wing one, in selling the blindingly-obvious idea that a country where rents are higher than mortgages has gone fiscally insane. Rent controls prevent greedy landlords being grotesquely enriched by taxpayers, and also stop the sort of lethal housing bubble that was the root of the worldwide crash in 2008.
When people don’t have to spend 60% (or more) of their disposable income on rent, they can also afford to buy things, stimulating the economy. Penalising them brutally for being unable to afford the unaffordable, on the other hand, merely rips money out of the pockets of the poor (handing it to the rich, who hide it offshore where it does no good for anyone) and thereby tightens the recession’s stranglehold on growth, perpetuating the vicious cycle of decline.
As with so many other things, modern Labour’s “alternative” offering to voters is to copy the Tory policy but slightly water it down around the edges. Rather than giving the electorate the option of two sets of fundamentally different principles which act as natural balances against each other – as was the case until 1997 – they reduce democracy to a choice of hangmen.
The UK parties are locked on a road that leads to the destruction of society as we’ve known it for the last 50 years, and there’s absolutely nothing voters can do about it. Electing Labour in 2015 will see all the same policies pursued, just slightly differently and probably more expensively. Focusing narrowly on the specific instance of Labour’s hypocrisy over the bedroom tax misses the bigger picture, and in doing so distracts from the real choice facing the people of Scotland a few months earlier.