As young people, many of whom are struggling to survive in the private rented sector, we are pleased that Kezia Dugdale has raised the issue of the housing market. However, we are disappointed that our headline policy for the 2016 Holyrood campaign doesn’t go far enough in dealing with the root cause of this crisis. We fear that it may in fact act to encourage house price increases, and preferences the private sector over the public sector more generally. Scottish Labour needs a clear alternative message to convince the electorate if we intend to recover in Scotland. We are concerned that yesterday’s policy announcement, a £3000 top up to deposits for first time buyers, will not help deliver this. The policy choice raises multiple questions:
Who is this policy meant to speak to?
Labour was founded as the party of the working class and rose to electoral prominence in Scotland after it led the 1915 rent strike on Clydeside. With this policy, our party is ignoring the voice of those worst hit by austerity and is focusing on those who are fortunate enough to consider the property ladder to begin with. Scottish voters are facing an NHS crisis, a shortage of housing, economic and political inequality, brutal cuts to public services and local government, and grossly underpaid and insecure jobs. Many Scots are preoccupied with providing for their families rather than property. A Labour administration should tackle these problems head on. Instead we have unveiled a policy aimed at some notion of “middle Scotland.” To be entitled to a government top-up under this policy, one must make a deposit to an ISA account of a minimum of £100 in ten months of each year, over the course of three years. This means a family needs to be able to save at least £1000 a year on top of day to day living. This requirement alienates a huge number of working class Scots who are struggling to get by, the same people we should be championing.
What will this policy achieve?
Scotland is facing a housing crisis, and this policy doesn’t offer a solution. It offers no support for those on council house waiting lists, fails to address the housing supply, and does nothing to help the growing number of people facing crushing private sector rents. It risks further inflating housing prices, which will subsequently increase rents and buy-to-let profits. A Labour vision of a strong economy shouldn’t be one that encourages enrichment by speculation. Instead, a Labour vision should be of an economy that offers highly paid, stable jobs in socially useful and productive sectors. We should be championing increasing the incomes and rights of workers, protecting our remaining skilled industries, and investing in new growing sectors, including supporting a crash public house building programme which could provide 50,000 new units over the course of an administration.
Why are we still championing homeownership?
Politicians have been promoting homeownership as something all individuals should aspire to for at least three decades. By advocating escaping the working class, rather than improving the conditions of those in it, we subscribe to a culture which marginalises many of those we should be championing. Aspiration and homeownership have become key political concepts, ones which overshadow collective interest in many Labour policies and principles. This message has failed to resonated with our working class – once core – vote, who have opted for the SNP. Instead of appealing to those we are meant to represent, the ideology of aspiration, meritocracy and social mobility has been used to justify substandard living conditions across the country. Homeownership is not a bad thing, but it should not be at the forefront of our election campaign. The experience of stagnating wages and consumption, fuelled through credit based on spiralling house prices between the 1980s and 2008 should serve as a warning of the collective economic dangers and individual catastrophes that a policy of home ownership at all costs can bring. Scottish Labour should be campaigning on the NHS, on workers’ rights, and on productive industry and infrastructure investment, not focusing on a home ownership scheme which will alienate those unable to deposit £100 a month in an ISA.
What should be done with housing instead?
As young people, many of whom are trapped in the private rented sector, it is our view that Scottish Labour should invest in expanding the council housing stock. This would eliminate damaging council housing waiting lists, which will exert downward pressure on private rents and buy-to-let speculation. We could accompany this with rent controls to put an immediate end to the worst abuses and create a housing market that serves social interests, not private profit. The housing crisis cannot be solved with a single policy. However, we can, and should, begin to lay the groundwork for change.