When Margaret Thatcher passed away and the broadcasters, newspapers, and casual drinkers in pubs picked over what her legacy really was, one of the key policies mentioned – and praised – time and time again by those from all sides of the political spectrum was the Right to Buy. It was an iconic housing policy that helped people who would never have had a chance of making it onto the housing ladder realise the dream of owning their own property. It was an empowering policy (the detail, of course, is slightly more complicated: the way the policy was designed led to a reduction in the overall size of the social rented sector, but as an iconic gesture to a group of people who were not traditional shire Tories, it’s hard to beat this one).
But Labour never loved it, and one of its vociferous opponents at the time was Jack Dromey, now shadow Housing Minister for the party. You’d expect, then, that he’d be keen to criticise it as vehemently as he possibly could when asked about it at a Policy Exchange fringe today, but this is what the MP really said:
‘The straight answer is no we’re not going to repeal Right to Buy, and let me just tell you a little story. I was one of those back in the 1980s that led the charge against Right to Buy. We were halfway across the field of battle, we looked over our shoulder and there was no bastard behind us. One and a half million council tenants bought their homes, and to be frank we’re not going to repeat the mistakes of history because it became a symbol and rather than being the enemy of aspiration, Mrs Thatcher became the champion of aspiration. Well we are the party of aspiration, so never again, never again.’
This is an interesting admission about a serious miscalculation by the Labour party in years gone by. But what might be the next miscalculation on a policy that voters turn out to love that the party has hated? Well, the only thing that’s even come close to the Right to Buy in terms of game-changing, opposition-befuddling policies since is the minimum wage. But for a while the Labour party opposed the benefit cap of £26,000 for workless households, the most popular policy pollsters have touched in a long while (even among trade unionists: 86 per cent of Unite members support this measure), before conceding that it probably should cap benefits, but in a way that ‘properly reflects local housing costs’, as Ed Balls said earlier this week. As Right to Buy showed, it’s very easy to get worked up about the details and principles of an announcement without realising that when a voter considers it, it could change the way they think about a party.
P.S. Can Labour even claim to be the party of social housing? If you missed this excellent analysis by Keith Cooper yesterday, I’d urge you to read it now.Tags: Housing, Jack Dromey, Labour, Labour conference 2013, Margaret Thatcher, right to buy, UK politics