Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
“A poor cover version of one of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s’ hits. It doesn’t even add up,” hurr-hurred the man who lives in a house which a vanishingly small proportion of his constituents – of the world – could ever afford.
I don’t unwind my respect for the Deputy Prime Minister – we wouldn’t have had five full years of good government without him – but, honestly, had I required a reminder of the non-intellectual, stomach-driven reason why I’d never vote Liberal Democrat, it was all there in the millionaire Clegg’s casual put-down of a generational, transformational, Conservative policy. Right to Buy is back, baby. But is it fair?
It’s not only Mr Clegg who reacted angrily to the new Tory flagship. I don’t suppose readers of ConservativeHome will lose much sleep over Owen Jones’s hysteria (“If you vote for the Tories’ right to buy, where will your children live?” In a box; a cold, damp-ridden box, of course, Owen. The children the Tories don’t actually eat, that is.) But here’s Julia Hartley-Brewer at the Telegraph: “Extending the Right to Buy is economically illiterate, and morally wrong.”
Why is the policy attacked so strongly? Is it unfair? Will it make housing supply worse? Crucially, will it be unpopular? (If a policy leaves “your children” lying about the street, unhoused; if it’s “illiterate” and immoral: it’s not likely to be a vote-winner.)
In reverse order. We have a control group for assessing the likely take-up of the policy. It’s called “what happened last time.” Don’t take my adult love affair with Essex as the proof (I wonder if Harlow will vote for, or against, right to buy?) We can go way more authentic roots-of-Labour-movement than that.
I’m just back from a weekend in Ayrshire, my Scottish place of origin. When I was growing up, various vandals of both parties had conspired to destroy Ayrshire as an entity: I lived in “Cunninghame district, Strathclyde region.” It was run in as unpoetic a manner as it was named; run, of course, by a succession of godless municipal socialists.
Socialists who loved, in as much as they were capable of that emotion, owning the homes of their voters. What power coursed through the veins of the council “officers” of Cunninghame District, Stratchclyde Region! No, ye shall not paint that door the colour of your choice. The colour of doors in Cunninghame District, Strathclyde Region has been chosen for ye!
And then came Thatcher and the biggest act of wealth redistribution since the war’s end. Own yer ain hoose! Surely hard-core Labour Scotland wouldn’t fall for it?
In 1979, only about one third of Scottish households were owner-occupied; a lower rate than that of East Germany. (Communist East Germany, for younger viewers.) By the end of that Tory era (John Major completed the task, and destroyed “Cunninghame District, Strathclyde Region”, so that my home is Ayrshire once more), two-thirds of Scotland owned its own home.
Scottish good sense saw through ideological shroud-waving in the 1980s, and I’ve no doubt it will do so again.
But critics have a germ of a point. If I’m renting privately, why won’t anyone help me to buy a house? Well, the government is helping first-time buyers with its, er, Help to Buy scheme, which is also called “unfair”, though mostly by the Right. It’s a “distortion” of the market, apparently, to interfere with the “right” of rich people, born into asset ownership by the random luck of birth, to keep getting richer, by doing nothing.
The real distortion, of course, lies in our common failure to build more houses. No-one pretends that Right to Buy, Help to Buy, or any other government scheme will by itself produce affordable housing stock for every young couple in their 20s.
The Harlow that I love – where I bought my first house – didn’t exist until some brave farmers sold their green fields and built houses on them.
Of course we need more house-building (and new Harlows are part of the Tory plan.) But, maybe unlike Right to Buy critics on the Left, I don’t think so little of my fellow voters to believe that, were I to find myself back in the 1990s, renting in Harlow, saving for my deposit, I would be angry that the government helped housing association tenants into ownership. Because I have a moral sense: I know who is worse off than whom, and who should be helped first.
(Apart from anything else, even voters who won’t be helped directly by Right to Buy 2.0 will see the long-term advantage in encouraging millions more of their fellows to look askance at tax-and-spend parties of state-provided housing.)
We’re getting to the nub of the argument here; that Right to Buy, because it helps an arbitrary group of voters, is “unfair”.
Earth calling Planet Left: no act of state-driven redistribution is “fair”, by definition. We – the electorate – impose acts of unfairness because we feel there’s a greater unfairness which can be ameliorated by such acts. In this case, forcing the “haves” to subsidise those who don’t have, yet, what the “haves” take for granted: a home of their own.
A real radical Left would wrap its arms round such a massive redistribution of wealth, from the people who subsidise state-run housing, to the people who live in that housing. A real radical Left would criticise the scheme for not going far enough.
Should we do the Left’s work for it? Why not extend Right to Buy into the private rented sector?
I’m not suggesting to force private landlords to put their stock on the market at reduced rates. But if we (taxpayers) are willing to liberate street-loads of people through one-off acts of subsidy, then why not extend that subsidy to people in private rented accommodation?
Lots of “private” rents are paid for with housing benefit, after all. Might Right to Buy 3.0 be like this – should a private landlord decide to sell a property, a long-term tenant would get first right of refusal, helped by a big subsidy from the state? That wouldn’t be “fair”, of course. It’d be bloody magnificent, though.
We can leave Right to Buy 3.0 for the 2020 manifesto. Here, in 2015, Right To Buy for housing associations isn’t only a flagship policy; it’s also an answer to that long-running question about the Prime Minister. We now know what “progressive Conservatism” means: liberation, for hundreds of thousands of Britons, via wealth redistribution. No wonder it makes Labour so angry.