Queen’s Speech: John McDonnell’s response in the Chamber 27th May 2015

Earlier in the debate, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) suggested that we should have serious discussions in this Parliament about the future of our economy, and I agree with him. In the debate so far, I have found remarkable complacency about the situation that we are facing. In fact, all the structural weaknesses and other factors that were present before the last crash are now reappearing, and many economic forecasts suggest that there is a prospect of precipitating another crash over the next two years. Consumer debt is rising, as are costs. There has been no sustained pick-up in wages, productivity is stagnating and living costs are vulnerable to rises in interest rates and inflation. If the Budget on 8 July cuts £30 billion as predicted, that could push us back into recession as a result of reducing demand so dramatically.

 

The fundamentals of our economy remain completely unaddressed: we have an unbalanced economy; production, manufacturing and construction have still to recover to their 2008 levels; and the finance sector is oversized and unregulated. At the last estimate, 60% of the big five banks’ profits since 2011 have been lost as a result of scandals. There is now a current account deficit of 5.5%, and a massive outflow of capital from this country. We have a debt of 80% of GDP, the bond markets are extremely volatile and the Eurozone is unstable. These are all the ingredients for another crash, yet we do not seem to be debating that at the moment, despite the continuous warnings from the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility in recent months.

 

The Prime Minister wants us to believe that economic recovery is under way and that the crisis is behind us. At the micro level, for my constituents, the economic crisis appears every payday. Many of them are experiencing economic crises, hardship and insecurity on a regular basis. As a London constituency representative, I believe that housing market failure is at the heart of our economic crisis. We knocked on every door in my constituency during the election, and I know that we are now facing the worst housing crisis since the second world war. I have 4,000 people on the housing waiting list. There were 10,000 last year, but a manoeuvre by the Conservative council simply wiped 6,000 of them off and denied them eligibility to be on the list. Tonight, I have 200 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I have families living in appalling housing conditions, with overcrowding, damp and insanitary conditions. I have families living in sheds. Shanties are now being built in my constituency to house families.

 

Rents in the private sector are between £1,200 and £1,600 a month for a little house. We have reinvented the back-to-back in my constituency, with some families living in the front of a property and others living in the back. The landlords of those properties are reaping something like £3,000 a month in rent. The buy-to-let landlords are making a fortune out of exploitative rents in my constituency. They fail to maintain their properties, but if the tenants complain, revenge evictions take place on a regular basis. This week, however, we have discovered that buy-to-let landlords have been given a £14 billion tax concession each year in recent years. Why? It is because, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, successive Governments have failed to build council houses. It is also because they have sold off council houses. The sell-off of council houses in my area has resulted in the bizarre situation of a Conservative council now having to rent back some of the council houses that it sold off 30 years ago, in order to house families in desperate need.

 

Affordable properties are being built at a minimal level. At the same time, affordability has now been redefined as 80% of the market rent, so “affordable” properties are now unaffordable to most of the population in my area. We were told that there would be a cap on benefits, and that that would reduce rent levels as the message went out to landlords, but it has had no effect whatsoever because supply is not matching demand.

 

The legislation proposed in today’s Queen’s Speech on selling off housing association properties will simply exacerbate the problem. I fully agree with the housing associations’ view that it will simply deplete their stock. Worse, it will undermine the asset base against which they can borrow to build new properties. We are told that this proposal will be funded by the sell-off of councils’ higher-value properties, but that is absolutely unrealistic. The sell-off of more council properties will mean a greater depletion of council stock. In addition, the record of reinvestment and rebuilding following the sell-off of council properties has been abysmal: it is a record of non-delivery over decades.

 

The Government’s legislation announced today will permanently embed the crisis in our housing market for future generations. We are storing up a greater crisis for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, said that these policies are socially cleansing whole areas of our city. Properties are being sold off, then sold on again to speculators and overseas property developers. Even those in the professions—the teachers, the firefighters, the police officers—can no longer afford to keep a roof over their head in London. As a result, working-class people and what could be described as middle-class professionals are being forced to move out. Alternatively, they live in an asset that they cannot sell because they are trapped and cannot find an alternative. Their sons and daughters are unable even to get on to the property ladder.

 

This all adds to the precarious nature of living in London at the moment, as incomes fail to match basic living costs .Professor Guy Standing defined the “precariat” as people on zero-hours contracts or on the minimum wage, but many people on middle-range incomes—teachers, firefighters, the police, middle managers and small businesspeople—are now cascading into the precariat because they cannot afford the housing costs in our city. They are also faced with unstable employment, threatened by outsourcing or privatisation. They are no longer able to find a voice for their frustrations, either at work as a result of the undermining of trade union rights or, to be frank, within the political system itself at times.

 

We need to remind Governments to have an element of humility. This Government were elected by 25% of the electorate; 75% of the electorate failed to support them. That is why I issue this warning. There are real frustrations within our political system. People whom we represent are angry because successive Governments have not delivered the basics to them—new Labour and Conservative Governments alike. They have not provided people with decent jobs, decent wages or the ability to live in a decent home with a roof over their head and in a decent environment. Unless Governments acknowledge those frustrations and they are reflected in this House, they will be ventilated elsewhere.

 

If the Government fail to listen, opposition will surface on picket lines no matter what the legislation states. We will go back to the days of wildcat strikes, whether or not union members comply with the legislation proposed in this Queen’s Speech. These problems will be seen on the streets, just as we have seen tonight in Parliament Square, which has been blocked by people who are angry at not being listened to and angry at the production of this Queen’s Speech. We will also see more occupations, particularly among the people in our capital city who are desperate to have a roof over their head and are forced to squat. We saw an example last year, when a young man was evicted from a squat and froze to death on its doorstep later that night.

 

The Government have said that this is a one-nation Queen’s Speech, but I fear that this country has now been divided geographically and that people will be riven by division as a result. This is about inequality. The Government are not listening to the people who are suffering as a result of the recession and who are not seeing the sunlit uplands of the supposed recovery. If we in this House are not very careful, we are going to witness a population driven by anger losing faith in politics altogether. Yes of course we must have a rational debate on the Queen’s Speech, but there needs to be room for some compromises in the legislation. I urge the Government to take a common-sense approach to a situation that could, if we are not careful, develop into an elective dictatorship.


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