Labour: Time to WAKE TF UP!

Andy Burnham says you have until next Spring.  Wrong. The next election is barely 18 months away.

If,  next month, in fact, at the Party conferences you don’t come out with a powerful, credible message I think we’re fucked.  We the people are  depending on you to get your shit together, because if you don’t we’ll be faced with another five years of this diabolical government. Possibly, if such a thing is imaginable, one even worse – rampant right-wing, Europhobic Tories hell-bent on finishing the destruction of the NHS.

Your task isn’t difficult, but you have to have the courage of your convictions and be prepared to ‘fess up to some of your own misdeeds during the 97-10 period.  And being too soft on immigration wasn’t one of them, by the way. Don’t try to out UKIP the Tories: do you really want to alienate the progressive, urban majority of the country? The next election won’t be won by Worcester Woman; the balance of power is shifting and while it’s still only the swing voters in the marginal seats who get to decide the next government, who they are is changing.

You need a simple message for the next twenty months.  It’s easy and it’s easy for you to remember – three H’s. Housing, Health and Heroes.

Housing

Attack the government on rising house prices. They’re not a sign that the economy is recovering, they’re a sign that its old addictions haven’t been cured. That after five years of austerity we’ve still not balanced the economy. We’re building up to another housing bubble because of this Government’s policies.  Housing bubbles are like heroin highs – you feel great (if you own a house) while the prices go up, but when they crash – it’s cold turkey. We’ve had five years of cold turkey, and now the government has decided to make it better by giving us another shot with its crazy Help to Buy scheme.  What we need is more houses, not more cheap money to push up the price of existing houses. But how to build more houses without breaking those budgetary rules? Some easy (and mostly Tory)  villains to attack.

Landbanking developers – they buy land and sit on it, not building houses until the last possible minute.  They make a profit without doing anything, and if they build houses to meet demand, price rises will level out. So let’s tax them for doing nothing. Once outline planning permission has been granted, give them six months to start building and two years to get the plot occupied. That’s houses built and people living in them. If not, tax them at a punitive rate – not less than ten percent of the capital value of the land with planning permission. Every year after the two year deadline that the land is still underdeveloped.

Buy-to-let landlords (particularly non-UK-resident ones). Let’s reform the taxation of rental property and get rid of the loopholes and tax holidays. Introduce a fixed allowance for expenses and stop making mortgage interest allowable against tax.  Tighten up on “flipping” – it’s not just a game played by dodgy MPs, landlords often flip their homes to avoid capital gains tax when they sell rental property.  And don’t be afraid when the landlord and letting-agent lobby starts saying that increasing the tax on rental income will drive up rents. It won’t.  Show me a landlord who doesn’t charge as much rent as the market will bear already and I’ll show you one whose letting agent isn’t doing their job.  Buy-to-let landlords keep first-time-buyer  properties out of reach of the first-time-buyers and they’re helping to keep a whole generation off the property ladder.  The least they can do is pay their fair share of tax on the rent.

Then there are two policy changes which will help that mythical group “hard-working families”..

Reform ASTs – Assured Shorthold Tenancies. The introduction of these in the late 1980s utterly transformed the private rental market. Until then, rents were controlled (you could apply to the Rent Tribunal to get your rent fixed at a ‘market rate’ ignoring the effect of any shortage of housing). You also had security of tenure.  Result, no landlord let, no mortgagees permitted it because a sitting tenant would wipe the value off the property. ASTs were, frankly a boon to young people looking for an intermediate step between living at home, or flatsharing, and getting on the Ladder.  But now, the bottom step of the Ladder is somewhere above tree-height,  so many families are living in private rented accommodation for much longer. The two-year limit on ASTs doesn’t fit with the need to plan continuity of schooling, for example.

Build more social housing.  The real scandal is that for three decades we haven’t recycled the money from right-to-buy sales to build more social housing.  Right-to-buy was Thatcher’s most potent electoral bribe and it’s not a bad thing if the money raised is used to build more houses – appropriately managed, it should recycle the public capital tied up in housing stock so it’s not being used to provide housing for people whose circumstances  have changed.

Health

‘Fess up guys but you started it.  Privatising the NHS, that is.  Private money is messing up the health service. It’s still, predominantly, a care-driven service, but it’s getting to be a cost-driven one.  Look at the forms hospital doctors have to fill. A few years ago, they were about recommended treatment. Now, there’s a whole extra layer of bureaucracy – cost recovery and charge-backs.  More boxes for doctors to tick, more administrators to check the boxes and more private companies to take the profit away.

Letting private firms into the NHS  was a terrible mistake for Labour to make, a gross betrayal of Labour’s principles, and the wrong way to modernise the service. Not that it doesn’t need continuous modernisation – we want a health service that’s state of the art, and we can have one if we spend the money on health instead of on chasing the money around.  Private companies  aren’t the answer, dedicated care, research and scholarship are. They’re what has kept the NHS the most cost-effective health-care system in the world for so long.   PFI has been a disaster which left us with expensive unwanted hospitals that we’ll be paying over the odds for for for the next thirty years and led to ridiculous situations like Lewisham where successful hospitals  get closed down to meet the costs of bad PFI deals. Diverting money from health to capital.  If the health service were run economically and rationally for health reasons, these daft decisions wouldn’t happen.   And don’t believe the propaganda – sure, Stafford was a bad case. But do you really think that private companies will stop that happening again?  With their constant pressure to cut costs to pay their owners’ profits?  It might stop us hearing about it, because the private companies will pay expensive lawyers – with our money –  to work gagging clauses in the name of commercial confidentiality.  The only confidentiality that matters in the health service is patient confidentiality. Everything else should be open and transparent. Let’s not imagine that the privatisation agenda in the NHS is about getting private money to pay for public services. It’s about getting public money to pay private companies (Tory donors, mostly) a profit. With our taxes.

End-of-life and Social care

This is absolutely part of the health message. Yes, health is getting more expensive, because we are living longer and older people need more of it.  Keeping two separate systems for health and social care means neither works very efficiently.  For older people, they’re part of the same thing and they need to be provided in the same package.  We need to integrate modern compassionate social and end-of-life care into the health service. It’s inefficient and undignified to keep acute hospital wards full of people at the end of their lives just to discharge them into inappropriate accommodation until the next fall brings them back in again.  Sorry for the cliche but we need joined-up thinking about social care, and if that means creating a new, integrated health and social care service built on the traditional care principles of the NHS, let’s do it.  We owe it to our heroes.

Heroes

Labour shouldn’t be afraid of highlighting heroism. Time to ditch the tired cliches of “hard-working families” and “The British People”.

The generation now reaching the end of their lives, in their eighties and nineties, are the last wartime generation. They were young adults in the war. They served in the desert and the jungle, in convoys, on the barrage balloons, in the mines and munition factories.  They were the generation of ’45, the heroes who helped save the nation and then came home to vote Labour and  build our NHS.  They  are our heroes whom we are shutting away to die undignified in homes and hospitals.   We need to treat them properly, just as we need to treat properly all the other heroes who have helped our country.

The gross betrayal of Afghan interpreters shows how little Cameron cares for heroes of any generation.  What the old people in cost-cutting private care-homes and the Afghan interpreters left to the mercies of the Taleban have in common is that they are heroes being stitched up by Cameron.  Cameron and his conservatives have their own heroes – the bankers and financiers who bankroll their party and who helped stuff the country in 2008. They’re fattening us up so they can do the same

There are heroes all over this country, local heroes and national heroes, people whose contribution to our society is measured in much more than money. They’re the people who make us a great nation, not the bankers with their seven-figure bonuses. People like Jimmy Rogers, the basketball coach in Brixton who coached Luol Deng – threatened with eviction because of cuts.  Caring heroes  who give up careers and independence   to look after their relatives and whose work could be better done by a professional.  These are heroes under siege, heroes  to whom we as a nation owe far more than money can count.

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