Desperately seeking the blue-collar Tory

OPINIONS OF THE DAY

Eric Pickles launches a movement to win back the hearts of working-class Tories and Len McCluskey says, rightly, that Ed Miliband is taking a big gamble if he thinks many union members will fork out to save the Labour Party unless it pays more attention to working-class Labour.

They are both after the same important constituency – right wing on immigration, dolies, social housing state interference, students and the EU; but anti bosses, bankers, billionaires and Apprentice-style prats; pro job creation and youth support; and a lot less bothered than everyone seems to think about gay marriage (although also a lot less bothered also, it has to be admitted, about cigarette advertising and what John Inverdale said about the tennis player).

Eric Pickles has to overcome the problem that there are many voters in this category who agree with most of the things Conservatives say but can’t stand the Conservative Party. Ed Miliband has to overcome the problem that Len McCluskey’s recipe for re-engaging the foremen and their lads goes back to the trade union standard – lay off social security claimants, build more council houses and increase the legal minimum wage from £6.19 an hour to £7.69 .

Most Labour MPs, Old and New, take the same line, although it’s the one which lost them a crucial chunk of the blue-collar vote to Margaret Thatcher and it still costs them votes.

Take housing. Where blue-collar Tories and their formerly Old Labour allies live, housing is an important issue and the one which all sides have most obviously cocked up over the course of several governments. Thatcher bought her way out of the obligation to build social housing by offering, in effect, to use the housing budget to pay for anywhere an entitled candidate could get. Teenagers and single mums left home on the deal, a lot of wives left or kicked out duff husbands, or the other way round, and the price of a grotty bedsit doubled overnight. Not necessarily a bad result, true. But suddenly, instead of being an item to be allowed for out of dole, a home was a right which came on top – biggest of the benefit traps and biggest of the fiddles from which career dolies and landlords have profited ever since.

Outside the rooms where union policy is agreed, Iain Duncan Smith and Eric Pickles do not face much opposition to their line that it is outrageous to be paying more than the average wage for some social housing. However, their bedroom tax looks like an awfully blunt instrument.

What we need is a re-separation between dole or low pay and housing support. Wherever you are, there should be some incentive to keep your housing costs down and either do your own maintenance or get a job and move to something better. Duncan Smith is a long way from getting there but he is trying to make a start and that will do until somebody comes up with a better idea – better, that is, than restarting the council housing programme.

Out here, we are in favour of building but not convinced that more tax-maintained houses are what needs building most.

In the Times a couple of weeks ago, Ross Clark reported:  “You don’t need to go to Rio de Janeiro to find shanty towns these days; they’re springing up here at home. Take a huge migration of 500,000 workers from former Soviet bloc states, combine it with a desperate housing shortage, and the inevitable result is the spread of ‘ beds in sheds’. Last month, Slough council sent a drone on a two-hour flight above the town and spotted 210 such illegal structures, all built without plumbing or heating. A makeshift camp housing 68 Romanians was recently cleared from the site of Hendon Football Club; in Peterborough, many Polish workers have taken up residence on the city’s extensive roundabouts.”

My suggestion is to put some money into creating trailer parks, well equipped with communal toilets and showers, metered and bottled power, site managers answerable to the local authority and contracts ruling out squatters’ rights. It would be a low-cost and potentially a break-even way of getting some temporary use out of brownfield or scheduled-for-development sites, while keeping options open. Properly thought through, the connections to mains supplies and sewers should have some sell-on value for future developments. A lot of single and transient workers would be perfectly happy to get out of the queue for permanent housing. And it would be a way of assisting flexibility in the labour market.

It is going to be a struggle for some time to make everybody richer. What we need are ways to make it easier to be poor – especially for low earners.

Which brings us to the minimum wage. Now, it is simply not possible for any Labour or union leader to argue against the minimum wage. But out in real life, the blue-collar voter is under no illusions. Of course £6.15 an hour is ridiculously low for some workers and we are firmly with the posties in their opposition to what looks like a plot to drive them down to somewhere close to it. On the other hand, it is not bad for some other jobs.   And as long as all the government does is announce a new minimum, some of those jobs will simply be exported.

Tell you what a government could get away with, though – an option of two years of non-military national service, in simple hard labour, to be paid at the minimum wage …  for anyone who wants to volunteer for it, if you insist, but we’d be happy with compulsory. Any interest, Mr Miliband? Mr Pickles?

Thought not.

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