What next, ‘British women for British men’?

Brown’s promise of social housing for local people shows that he thinks the way to beat the BNP is to steal its policies.

Nathalie Rothschild

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If plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, then British right-wing parties should be thanking Gordon Brown.

Two years ago, at the Labour Party conference, Brown revived the old National Front slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’. This week he pledged that ‘local people’ should be prioritised in the allocation of social housing, clearly pandering to the myth that immigrants routinely ‘jump the social housing queue’. What next – ‘British women for British men’?

In an apparent bid to stem the advance of the British National Party (BNP) in some traditional Labour strongholds, Brown pledged to ‘reform social housing allocation – enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people whose names have been on waiting lists for far too long’ (1).

Local authorities will be asked to consider local housing applicants’ links to their local area, how long they have been on the waiting list, and whether they are moving because of a specific job. But some of these checks are already in place; there is a 12-month residence test before you can join the housing list, for example (2).

Critics have pointed out that Brown’s pledge is untenable, that it is simply a sham, a gimmick. The Conservative shadow housing minister, Grant Shapps, said that allowing councils in England to give preference to locals would be illegal both under existing law and under the forthcoming Equality Bill. While the former requires councils to give preference to the homeless, people in overcrowded or unsatisfactory housing and those with welfare or medical problems, the latter will introduce new duties to tackle socio-economic disadvantage (3). In both cases, it don’t matter, as the late Michael Jackson said, if you’re black or white. Or at least it shouldn’t.

The prime minister has also pledged £1.5billion to the housing sector in order to build 30,000 new homes over the next two years and to create new jobs in the process. It has been pointed out that Brown has raised these funds by ‘raiding’ the health, education and transport budgets. While Downing Street signalled that the Department for Communities would cover the cost of the new house-building, and that the rest would come from ‘underspends’ elsewhere, the Department for Communities signalled back that it would refuse to foot the bill which would curb its Decent Homes refurbishment programme and leave some 200,000 existing council homes in disrepair (4).

But apart from Brown’s pledge being both unworkable and unambitious – Britain needs considerably more than 30,000 new homes – it is also based on a serious falsehood. British-born residents are not, as implied, being sidelined by foreigners when it comes to social housing allocation. Yesterday, the National Housing Federation (NHF) dismissed this prejudice as a ‘dangerous myth’, pointing out that just 4.6 per cent of the two million social homes lettings went to migrants last year – and the figure was virtually identical in the previous two years (5).

Instead of coming up with radical reform to Britain’s housing deficit, Brown is effectively letting an anti-immigrant myth set the agenda when it comes to debates and policy around social housing. The director of the NHF, Ruth Davison, warned: ‘The poisonous housing myth can only damage community relations, racialise the housing debate, and generate yet more support for the extremists.’ (6)

The NHF’s figures are supported by new research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which found that more than 60 per cent of migrants who have come to Britain in the past five years are living in privately rented accommodation. Eighteen per cent were owner-occupiers, and only 11 per cent had been allocated social housing homes (7).

Last year, research by Sheffield City Council for the government’s Migration Impacts Forum showed that ‘overall, foreign nationals living in England are much more likely to own or privately rent their home than be living in social housing’. The report said that around 90 per cent of people who had arrived in England in the past two years were in the private rented sector (8). Most newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers are, in fact, banned from access to council accommodation.

Brown’s new slogan of ‘local homes for local people’ comes across as a thinly disguised promise to stop native Brits from ‘losing out to scrounging foreigners’. This is not the first time that New Labour has come up with a racist plan after panicking about losing voters to the BNP. Three years ago, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking in east London, claimed that migrants were given priority for social housing over British-born families. She called for council house allocation to be linked to length of residence in Britain and said the government ‘should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants’ (9).

When a political row ensued, Hodge claimed she was simply reflecting the concerns of her constituents (10). This is another favoured New Labour tactic: introduce illiberal and misguided policies and claim it is ‘what the people want’.

Brown and his cohorts promise to ensure that British jobs, homes and so on primarily go to ‘indigenous’ people because they fear those natives will otherwise revolt and turn to the BNP. However, many of Brown’s critics hold the same fear. They react so angrily to his unfortunate slogans, not simply because they want to counter prejudice against foreigners, but also because they want to prevent those British natives from turning to right-wing parties and starting race riots on British council estates. While Brown may be pandering to the BNP and the queue-jumping myth, those of his critics who say his new housing policy is likely to encourage racial tensions are pandering to the liberal myth that white, working-class Brits are a racist mob in the making.

The social housing allocation system may well be in need of review and Britain certainly needs new homes, but Brown’s pledge falls short on both counts. At least he has, yet again, exposed New Labour’s weaknesses and inherent prejudices, so the good news is that he has taken another step towards the political abyss that he should be used to staring into by now.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

(1) Local homes pledge ‘is unlawful, BBC News, 30 June 2009

(2) Thinking local: social housing changes, Guardian, 29 June 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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