Opinion

The government is trying to keep us sweet with its 'right to buy' scheme for benefits claimants

There's more than a whiff of Thatcher ideology around Boris Johnson's controversial housing policy

Seventies blackout

Reading the news by candlelight during a blackout, February 11, 1972 Photo: Ian Showell / Keystone / Getty Images

Apparently a million people have been taken out of the workforce by the pandemic. That is a vast part of the UK’s workforce. No wonder the new reason for cancelled trains – which I’ve rarely heard before – is the lack of drivers. Perhaps that explains the increasing problems around the health service, passports etc; the simple fact that the pandemic has knocked us for a bigger six than we have so far realised. That society could be seen as a large patient that is still not fully recovered from its unfortunate run-in with Covid. Fuel prices are adding to the sense that many things are becoming more unreliable. That we might be returning to poorer and less provided-for times.

There is also a sense that we might be mimicking the Seventies, when there were a number of strikes of a different order. Strikes by workers in basic industries, in coal and electricity, on the trains. But also bigger, international strikes, eg by the OPEC oil-producing nations who declined to continue providing oil. When the price of fuel went through the roof. And when Edward Heath’s government put us all on a three-day week in response to these big energy and transport strikes.

To add insult to injury, just when it seemed things could not get any worse, Fidel Castro – dictator of Cuba and a large exporter of sugar to the world – stopped the supplies. I remember going out in my car seeking ever-distant garages to get filled up and going into as many shops as possible to stock up on bags of white sugar. If you had white sugar you were precious and special.

I occasionally got the petrol but never the sugar. I was working as a printer at the time, running my small print business from the back of my house. And was having to deliver jobs all over the place, hence my hunt for more petrol. And drinking 20 cups of tea a day, which meant 40 spoons of sugar a day. Hence the hunt. After one wild goose chase so that my fellow printer and I could get our dose of sugar, I decided to give it up. A series of vile cups of tea led me after two weeks to never ever want sugar in my tea again. Or anywhere near me; except on a rare iced bun.

Now, though, the pandemic becomes the driver for social change and hopefully for new social innovation. Covid and the war in Ukraine mean we need to reinvent many things that we took for granted. Astonishingly, the pandemic has even wrecked our politics and produced the big political argument over what the government and its offices and officers were up to during lockdown. What a surreal world we live in when parties and supposedly drunken behaviour become the dominant political currency to potentially bring down a large majority-led government. 

Covid, as well as exposing us, exposed government because it was new and unprecedented. And now our lives seem to be living in the echoes and shadows of Covid as new pressures are placed on us all. This of course drives the government – still under its current leadership – to try and do something clever and vote-winning. So we are into a new pandemic-inspired world. What will the Johnson administration do to get a sizeable part of the electorate to love them again?

Wow! According to reports, the intention is to allow people on Universal Credit and other forms of social security to buy their own homes. The argument being, among others, that £50 billion of rent support is going into the pockets of landlords. So wouldn’t it be lovely if, instead, that actually gave people something. Something that they could use as nest eggs for the future generations that they are trying to bring up in rented, expensive and not-secure property. 

Interestingly there is, in this idea, a large element of the Thatcher administration’s policies around buying your own council house in the Eighties. That is, the social housing pool can be turned to private ownership. So the weakening of Johnson’s government creates the need to go out on a limb. And take risks of a kind a stronger government would probably not have countenanced.

Thatcher’s innovation, though, was very ideological in its intentions. If it was simply to allow working-class people to have some of the spoils given to the middle classes by buying their own homes, that might have been admirable. But to then tell councils who had sold their properties and accumulated receipts that they could not build more council housing with the money was an attempt at weakening social housing provision.

If the Thatcher government had allowed local councils to replace the sold houses then we might not be in the housing fix we are in now. Giving the working classes, as they were constantly called in those ‘class days’, a leg up the social mobility ladder could have been achieved without leaving behind the harm created by depleting the social housing stock.

‘Pandemification’ you might call the current process. Let us watch with interest what else the backwash of Covid will cause our masters in government to do. Whatever is now coming down the line will make us think. And ponder.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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