Principles above self-interest

Swindon is undergoing an ‘options appraisal’ of its Council housing. This is the charade that offers ‘choice’ to tenants to stay with their Council or to transfer to a Housing Association or some other body. From a high of 18,000 homes, since the ‘Right to Buy’ was introduced by Thatcher, the Council stock has declined to around 10,500. With the New Labour government maintaining the ‘Right to Buy’ (albeit it with less of a reduced price) and the effective ban on new Council house building, the housing waiting list in Swindon has trebled since Blair came to office. This is despite the fact that many people do not even bother to put their name on the list since they know they have no chance of getting a house.

Yesterday, following up contacts for the campaign against transfer, I visited a bloke who had contacted us by email. Steve is 83, an ex-AEU convenor of a local factory, and as he told me, “a Labour man all my life”. When he retired at 65 he had a goodly lump sum with his pension; enough to be able to buy his Council house and leave him with a few thousand pounds left over.

However, being a trade unionist with some sense of the collective interests of working people, he refused to buy it as a matter of principle, despite pressure from some of his family. One of them told him he was “mad” not to buy it. “No”, he said, “you’re mad. These houses are meant for people without homes. If they are sold off we’ll end up with a shortage of them for younger people.” He was right, of course. That is why Council housing waiting lists on the national level have 1.7 million families on them.

One of the successes of Thatcher was getting a fairly substantial group of working class people to put self-interest above collective interests. A minority of tenants adopted the principled stance of Steve. For many people, in the early days, paying the mortgage was cheaper than paying the rent, since Thatcher gave them away at a massive reduction from their actual worth. But as Steve pointed out to me, some of the people who bought them didn’t think it through. They could not afford the cost of maintaining them. Some of them ending up losing their homes. Wander round our estate and you will see some of the worst houses are those bought by former tenants who have not had the money to modernise them.

Steve, like many others, is bemused by the fact that Labour under Blair and Brown has continued Thatcher’s policy. We are paying the price for their discrimination against Council tenants. For the most part, tenants today are too impoverished to be able to buy their homes. Last year in Swindon a paltry 15 were bought. Before the ‘Right to Buy’ our estates were ‘mixed communities’ (a cross section of working class people) in which by and large people treated their neighbours with respect. Not so today. Council estates are treated as objects of contempt. And the current government set out in 1997 to put an end to Council housing at the same time as it began its crusade for home ownership (at the cost of burying the country under a mountain of debt).

Steve, and others, put their principles above self-interest, despite living in a period in which self-interest was encouraged and revered. With the collapse of the neo-liberal system which Thatcher developed and Blair/Brown supported, the ‘excesses’ of that system have been widely recognised. The madness which Steve was accused of now looks more like sanity. One of the Gods of New Labour was ‘aspiration’ – personal aspiration; people ‘getting on’ in the war of one against all. But it is the collective aspiration which was expressed in Steve’s refusal to buy his Council house which has to be revived and rebuilt by the labour movement.

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