In the end, it all comes down to one question: are we the party of the aspiring, the young, the disadvantaged, those whom the present system denies a stake in the wealth of the country – or are we the party of the propertied, the landed, the status quo, the I’m-alright-Jacks?
This is what we must ask ourselves as we head towards a crunch vote on housing policy at Conference this weekend.
The battleground can be drawn out in straightforward terms. Liberal Reform, one of the party’s internal groupings, has tabled a far-reaching but largely uncontroversial motion on building houses for our communities. A key part of this motion is a national housebuilding target of 380,000 new homes per year, with a target of 150,000 of those homes being available for a social rent.
In recent days, however, it has emerged that the party’s Federal Policy Committee (with, as this author understands, the support of the party’s leadership, ALDC, and the party’s contingent on the Local Government Association) has tabled an amendment to the motion. This amendment adds a lot of good things – but one major change that has caught the eye of many members is that it would delete the 380,000 new homes requirement and instead declare that the party is opposed to all types of targets for housebuilding.
There are rumblings amongst members that this is being pushed by the campaigns department within party headquarters, convinced that we will win seats across the Blue Wall at the next general election by riding the wave of fury unleashed by Conservative planning reforms. But this is to overcook our policy on the basis of the victory in Chesham and Amersham, and get drunk on our own liquor.
There is no evidence that any significant number of voters are put off from voting for the Liberal Democrats because we have a national target for building new homes and social homes. There is certainly no evidence that they would be put off by the motion proposed by Liberal Reform, which itself criticises the Tory planning reforms and reiterates the party orthodoxy that planning power should be given to local communities.
And so, the political effect of the amendment would be negligible: it would give no new ammunition to canvassers on the doorsteps (no right-thinking person is going to boast of having no targets for new homes) and will persuade no swing-voters.
Instead, the effect of the amendment would be to torpedo a policy position which persuades young people across the country, and to annihilate completely any positive policy we have on development and any tangible targets which we can march towards rather than vague talking points.
The amendment therefore makes no sense politically whatsoever. It adds nothing, and takes away a key argumentative tool for activists across the country trying to promote us as a party which will fix the housing crisis.
But internally, the amendment is also a terrible idea. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, it would give anti-development councillors in the party carte blanche to continue their regressive, anti-youth, anti-housing campaigns, never having to be accountable to the fact that the party has pledged a specific number of homes per year – I here refer to the sort who, despite our pro-environmental messaging, oppose building on derelict bus garages in London because there wouldn’t be enough parking spaces nearby; and those who oppose green redevelopments of abandoned sites because they don’t provide enough affordable housing, despite the rate being greater than that proposed in our 2019 manifesto.
Secondly, it will demonstrate once and for all that the older, more conservative, more regressive elements of the party have decisively won the war they are waging against young members, who are overwhelmingly in favour of development and consistently pass policies at Young Liberals Conference which seek greater development, reviews of the green belt, and a recognition that supply-side problems are punishing young people who want to get on the property ladder. The disenfranchising effect on young members will be astonishing: in previous articles, I have already noted a stream of them leaving over our housing policies, and am informally told that dozens refused to campaign in Chesham and Amersham on the basis of the NIMBY campaign we were running there. Passing this amendment is likely to make the problem worse, and deepen the rift between the party’s young activist base and older elected officials.
I have made no secret of my contempt for the anti-housing wing of the party. In a previous article, I described their anti-housing campaigns as reactionary and conservative. And unfortunately, this is precisely what the leadership’s amendment is. It would turn our housing policy into a damp squib, drawing the wrong lessons from the victory in Chesham and Amersham.
For the umpteenth time: the housing crisis is one of the great problems of our time, which is disproportionately affecting the young and the disadvantaged. Inequality of wealth in our country, already intolerable, has ballooned during the pandemic. The Conservative government has just announced yet another measure to raid the income of the young and the working while protecting those whose incomes derive from landlordism.
We have to pick a side. Are we going to take the necessary measures to redistribute wealth more equitably, and to help the young and the poor obtain relief from economic precarity and pressure? Or are we going to favour those who already own property and help them safeguard the value of their million-pound houses in the Home Counties?
The answer to me is obvious. Liberals stand with the repressed. Conservatives stand with those trying to entrench their privilege. We must never be the latter.
It follows, then, that we should let our actions follow our convictions. Reject this ill-considered attempt by the leadership to attack our positive policy on housebuilding. Recognise it for the politically pointless but internally destructive move it is. Support any effort to have it removed by line-vote. And keep on fighting to turn this party into one which is unabashedly in favour of building homes for future generations, ensuring that the young get to share in the wealth they create, rather than having it snatched away from them by the twin hands of government and landlordism.
Gracchus is an occasional columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.