While Natalie Bennett struggles to present the Green party’s policies in the mainstream media, Adam Johannes asks about the real cost of the housing crisis – to families, children and society as a whole.
by Adam Johannes
Natalie Bennett: Green Party chief delivers “car crash” performance on LBC dubbed “worst party leader interview ever given”' (The Independent). It probably wasn't the newspaper headline that the Greens were hoping for on the day of their official election campaign launch. Once again, a hostile interviewer had sought to catch them out on whether their proposals were costed and funded (listen to it here).
There is no reason a small party nowhere near becoming the next government needs a carefully costed, detailed plan of what they would do in government. The Greens’ actual mistake was allowing the terrain of debate to move onto, and get bogged down in, detailed policy proposals and the minutiae of costing things, rather than sticking to a broad-brush articulation of the ‘big ideas’. And the central big idea is: we have the wealth to deliver a high quality of life to everyone if we radically redistribute power and wealth from the 1% to the 99%.
The gambit of demanding facts and figures is one that establishment journalists have often used against the centre-left and radical-left, to shift the debate back to 'realistic' common sense policies within the neoliberal consensus. Unfortunately, the Greens’ desire to appear a 'credible' party in an establishment sense means they allow this shift of the debate onto the terrain of the political class and away from the lives of ordinary people.
Many people wrongly believe that the problem with this interview was that Natalie Bennett did not have facts and figures to hand. The real problem was one of approach.
Responding to a question on how the Green Party would fund building 500,000 Council Houses, Natalie Benett should have responded politically rather than trying to be an accountant. When asked about the cost of building these homes, she might have replied:
What is the social cost of not building these homes?
What is the cost to families, children, and society as a whole and people's lives if we don't tackle the housing crisis?
Why do you think it is acceptable for millions of citizens of one of the wealthiest societies in the world to be denied the right to a secure, longterm, affordable home?
Why can Britain afford £100 billion to renew trident but not afford to house its own citizens adequately?
How could Britain, with a bankrupt economy and higher national debt than today, build thousands of homes in 1945, but fail to do so now?
Because it is not about the money, it is about the choices around where the money goes. As Aneurin Bevan once said: 'the language of priorities is the religion of socialism'.
Building thousands of council homes every year is realistic, affordable and achievable. People will grasp that, especially if you point out that this actually happened for thirty years between 1945, when the economy was in a worse state than it is now, until 1979 when Thatcher radically changed how our society addresses housing. Making the point in that way would have scored with the listeners.
So rather than arming herself with facts and figures, perhaps Natalie Bennett should have given concrete examples of real people hurt by the housing crisis, and the real human stories behind the statistics. She might have responded to the interviewer’s hostile questioning with her own hostile questions:
Why did he think some people don’t deserve to have a secure, stable, affordable home?
Did he think it fair on teenagers today to move into adulthood denied the same opportunities their parents had to rent a council house, or privately rent in a regulated sector with rent controls to keep rents affordable, or even afford to buy a house if they were on a middle income.
The housing crisis is real. Thirty years ago, more people rented their home from the council than from a private landlord. In 1980, a third of people in Britain were living in social housing with affordable rents, longevity and security of tenure. It's now only one in seven. Last year, for the first time in a generation, more people rented from a private landlord than from a council or housing association. With soaring rents, and people priced off the property ladder, renting a home is increasingly becoming difficult for a huge swathe of society. Affordable social housing is essential to give everybody the right to have a home.
I am not a Green Party supporter because their councillors in Brighton and Bristol vote for austerity budgets, just like the mainstream parties do, passing on the government cuts that hurt our communities. But we do need to think about how we take on the arguments around left-wing policies in the mainstream media - and win!
Adam Johannes is a community activist based in Cardiff.
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