Friday, 16 June 2017

It's the Property, Stupid

One of the more irritating sub-plots of the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has been the suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn's call to requisition empty properties to rehouse the homeless would mean "seizing luxury homes" and "giving them" to the survivors (the increasingly tired language of state coercion and undeserved handouts). Given that Labour has emphasised that the residents' chief fear is that they would be moved from the immediate area in North Kensington, thus breaking up the community, the idea that they would be decanted to penthouses as far south as Chelsea Harbour (3 miles away - the borough is long and thin) is hardly believable, even before you factor in the logistical practicalities (e.g. bussing kids to the same schools), let alone the high cost of compensation through compulsory purchase of some of the most expensive buildings in the country. Mind you, requisitioning Kensington Palace, or perhaps the Daily Mail building just off Kensington High Street (conveniently close to the town hall), wouldn't be a bad idea as a purely temporary measure. That the media see this in terms of property and the defence of the rights of the rich, rather than in terms of the preservation of community, is telling.

The left is often accused of social engineering, of wanting to change attitudes and thus political affiliations through state intervention. In fact, the greatest exercises in social engineering have always been carried out by the right through the vector of property law, such as the Enclosure Acts, or through land reform that, since the French Revolution, has been designed to create conservative smallholders committed to the sanctity of property and social stability. If you think of British council housing as a reconstitution of the commons, and thus a delayed response to enclosure, Thatcher's right-to-buy programme can be seen as a further counter-movement that repeated enclosure's transfer of assets from the public to the private realm while ironically posing as an assault on the country's largest landlord, the state. As with the earlier land grant programmes in other countries, which often coincided with the advance of suffrage, for example in Ireland, this aligned the interests of a new property-owning class with the conservative establishment and created a bulwark against the enfranchised working class.

The Tory manifesto plan to include house values in the calculation of social care funding (the so-called "dementia tax"), with its expectation that property would have to be liquidated at death, is important not so much for what it tells us about now-defunct "Mayism" than for its historic context. The generation that first mounted the property ladder during the Thatcher years, and who were thereafter favoured by both Conservative and Labour governments, depended not only on the positive right-to-buy but on the negative moratorium on council house building. The latter was ultimately the more significant as it helped inflate the value of all housing stock, not just ex-council. Someone born in the middle of the postwar baby-boom, say 1950, would probably already have either gotten on the property ladder in the 1970s or secured a relatively new-build council house that they were then able to buy at a discount in the 1980s. That same person is now facing retirement, hence the political salience of the pensions triple-lock, and presumably starting to think about their future care needs and what might be left as a legacy for children. What the Tory manifesto was saying, in its clumsy way, is that it's now time to start paying back. In other words, the free-money giveaway wasn't for keeps after all.

What Grenfell Tower has brought into sharp relief is that the major division in society is not one of age but of property. Age is simply a proxy for property-ownership, just as educational attainment is a reflection of the changes in opportunity and thus a proxy for age. Likewise, the weakening correlation between socioeconomic class and voting seen in the general election doesn't mean that the Tories are attracting workers and Labour becoming more middle class through an appeal to cultural values, even if there is a correlation on the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Not only is the venerable NRS scheme increasingly meaningless, given that many B and C1 jobs are lower-paid than C2 roles, but it fails to reflect differences in property tenure. There are increasing numbers of people in the A and B grades who are obliged to rent and have little immediate prospect of ownership, while the lowest grade, E, includes many pensioners and thus a high percentage of home-owners. The starkest finding from the initial demographic analysis of voting patterns is that Labour won among all working groups. This, I suspect, is because all working groups are now subject to the same pressures over property.

The refusal to acknowledge the dominant role of property in forming contemporary political attitudes goes a long way to explain the failure of the commentariat to see the general election result coming. The well-paid pundits of national newspapers and TV tend to be of an age that means they own valuable property, often in London, and are exposed to the current realities (if at all) through young-adult children negotiating the private rented sector. For them, preserving capital gains is not only a natural feature of the liberal order but a necessity for giving their offspring the wherewithal to secure a deposit on a flat. They consider property inequality a problem, but they cannot see that property is becoming the dividing line in society and thus the defence of unconditional property rights is increasingly incompatible with a progressive agenda. The media's narrowing of the policy spectrum - the Overton Window - makes it vulnerable to being blindsided by a flanking manoeuvre. If you have benefited from the property market, and have experienced austerity only in the abstract, you may easily underestimate how attractive credible promises on housing and public services are. For the liberal commentariat, Corbyn is by definition extreme, even if the reality is that he and Labour's manifesto are both seen as mainstream by many voters.

Opinion broadly comes in two forms: criticism and prediction. The register of the former ranges from nostalgia, such as Ian Jack gently lamenting how cheap old Victorian houses once were in Islington, to bitter vituperation, such as Nick Cohen furiously dismissing most of his paper's readership as "fucking fools". The evidential base tends towards personal experience and anecdata, often buttressed by selective lessons from history. This approach can give a rich and subtle impression, but it needs space and time (the 2012 BBC documentary series, The Secret History of Our Streets, which devoted an hour to the social divide of Portland Road, just to the south of Notting Dale, was exemplary). You can't achieve this in a punchy, one-off newspaper column. Cohen's now infamous piece was routine in its construction: nostalgically quoting Robert Conquest, dismissing the Overton Window as mere "jargon", and turning the invective dial up to 11. If criticism tends towards a biased view of reality, a prediction seeks to create reality through invocation. It is an act of magic, rather than reason, and thus not much advance on inspecting the entrails of dead beasts. But criticising it for this is to miss the point. Gut-feeling is not in competition with logically derived probabilities. Both have entertainment value.

A good example of this was BBC Newsnight's eve-of-poll predictions. The tired format of the 3-party panel was given a shot in the arm by the obvious mutual loathing of Paul Mason and Iain Dale (the otiose LibDem was utterly forgettable), giving the whole exercise the air of a fairground stall where a fight was about to break out. This was not only entertaining, but Mason's gut even managed to call the result right. In contrast, Chris Cook's analysis of the seats visited by the party leaders, which turned out to be as insightful as casting runes, was not only duller but no more scientific despite its claims to empiricism. For example, he offered no evidence from past elections to show that his method would produce meaningful results even though the theory was obviously testable. The demand for prediction, allied to the lack of caution that is encouraged by the mode of criticism, means that pundits will make many more predictions than are justified by the data, which in turn means that they'll get more wrong. But being wrong (and usually unapologetic) is part of the entertainment too. The mea culpas in the liberal media this last week are a simple commercial acknowledgment that they misjudged their consumers, not that they misjudged Jeremy Corbyn.

Many are attributing the supposed "youthquake" to the declining reach of newspapers and TV and the growing power of social media. Some on the left are even suggesting that this is evidence of the emergence of the networked worker and the general intellect. That might be ever-so-slightly over the top, but what it does suggest is that the political consequence will be the intensification of two complementary trends: the growing dissatisfaction with the power of money over online political advertising - e.g. the concern over "fake news" and sinister data anlaytics; and the growing demand for greater control of online activity deemed a threat to the social order. While both of these have a progressive spin, what they reflect is the regulatory contest of different fractions of capital: old media companies versus the tech titans. The political centre isn't seeking to curtail the power of money so much as insist on plural representation - i.e. liberal safe-spaces - while intolerance towards a loosely-defined "abuse" is as prominent as foiling terrorism in the discussions on gatekeeping. That this was one of the few areas of common agreement between Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron this week should come as no surprise. Like the humble pie adjustment, this is transparent neoliberalism in action: we must refine our regulation.

The political mood of the UK probably hasn't shifted that much in the last two decades (that many former UKIP voters reverted to Labour is perhaps indicative of this). What has changed is the level of engagement, though even that can be exaggerated: turnout in the general election was only up by a little over 2% on 2015, though it has grown by over 9% since the postwar low in the annus mirabilis of 1997. The sense I get is that another general election now would actually see a further increase in turnout, despite the complaints of Brenda from Bristol, essentially because many people think we have reached a watershed, not just with the poll last week but with the varied evidence this week of government incompetence and a society that has lost its ethical bearings through a slavish worship of property. I might well be wrong, but it feels like we are living through a change in public perception if not in underlying belief. Another way of putting it is that a more socially concerned attitude, which was always latent, has been emboldened by the 8th of June. I don't get the feeling that the liberal commentariat fully get this, while the self-declared liberals that now effectively prop up the right, like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, remain in furious denial.

1 comment:

  1. Cohen and Aaronovitch crossed the Rubicon when their pro-Zionism trumped any residual socialist principles.