How a giant of Labour’s past can help Scotland today – Richard Leonard

Affordable council and public housing will be a pillar of the next Scottish Labour Government’s plans, writes Richard Leonard.

Housing is likely to be the most common topic that constituents raise with their councillor (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Housing is likely to be the most common topic that constituents raise with their councillor (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

A new report by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) published last week, explores what it means to be ‘working class’. The report notes that 150 years have passed since the creation of the term, but it also reveals that over much of the 20th century, the lived experience of working people improved – a trend that has reversed in the past 40 years.

I am often asked what – and who – I am referring to when I talk about the working class. The truth is, it is people from every ethnic background, British born or migrants, all genders, all sexualities, and people who live in every part of our country. Fundamentally, however, it is people who are paid for their labour, and as such I would say by this economic definition that the majority of people in Scotland are working class.

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The Class research highlights four common themes experienced by working people: precariousness, prejudice, power and place.

Last week also marked the centenary of the first council housing introduced by the Liberals, although it was Labour’s 1924 Housing Act led by John Wheatley, which heralded the real breakthrough.

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This Act was the first legislation ever introduced by Labour in power aimed at transforming the lives of working people. With its 15-year plan for council house building funded by rising subsidies from central to local government, it stirred hope at a time of depression. Many of the great themes which guided Wheatley’s political life came together in the Housing Act. He was a socialist not because of books that he read but his personal experience of poverty. He nonetheless recognised the inspiring role of ideas and vision in politics. He also campaigned for a Living Wage and redistributive taxation, citing social inequality – “starving in the midst of plenty” – as the primary cause of economic slump.

He understood the importance of practical socialism and he took his formative thinking in Glasgow and translated it into a national action plan. The aim of a Labour housing policy, Wheatley wrote, “is not to rescue people from the slums but to prevent them getting there”.

Wheatley, who had been a Glasgow councillor prior to being a member of parliament, always understood that government – local or central – could provide the secure, affordable homes so needed. In his proposals for workmen’s cottages funded by the surpluses of the Glasgow Corporation Tramway Department, there is a more than a glimpse of the possibilities for a national council housing programme at affordable rents which he would later bring to fruition. Until the 1924 Act’s subsidy provisions were withdrawn a decade later, more than half a million houses were built under its terms. A remarkable success.

It is not surprising that a former councillor, with his life experience, focused on housing for the working class. Today, if you speak to any local councillor and ask what is the most common topic that constituents raise: it is most likely to be housing.

Affordable secure housing was part of the social justice improvement for working people and selling off council stock and not replacing it is part of the reversal. The result is that we now have a chronic shortage of affordable homes. Housing is taking up an ever-larger share of working people’s smaller pay packets.

Young people particularly feel the negative impact of this reversal of fortunes, especially regarding housing. More young people are living in the private rented sector or with their parents due to the lack of affordable housing. Their employment is all too often that of low pay and insecure. Zero-hours contracts have grown exponentially. And children growing up in poverty are now more likely to have a parent working than not.

For decades, we’ve been told that inequality doesn’t matter because the education system will allow talented and hard-working people to succeed whatever their background. But the greater inequality has become, the more entrenched it has become.

Education is one of the most powerful means we have to overcome disadvantage. But our current system is mirroring and reinforcing the inequality in our society. The privileged remain privileged while people from working-class backgrounds are denied opportunities.

The Scottish Parliament could be doing much more to address the challenges that people are experiencing. We need to build solidarity once again so a shared identity can emerge from shared conditions but also from shared values, a shared history of past struggles and of past victories, we must rebuild a willingness to support each other, and a sense of pride in and belonging to local neighbourhoods.

The SNP Government has introduced a socio-economic duty on public bodies in Scotland to take account of equality issues such as gender, ethnicity, disability etc. But on class, the Government’s interim guidelines concluded: “This is, however, more difficult to measure and will require further consideration as to how we build it into assessment.” Too many working class people are still dying prematurely and poverty is often at the root of it. I want to eradicate poverty and inequality in Scotland. And making a long-term programme for affordable council and public housing to remove the experience of housing precariousness – just as John Wheatley did in 1924 – will be one pillar of the next Scottish Labour Government’s objectives.