The Sunday Times

June 19th, 2011

An eviction notice to the well-heeled Labour traitors

What is a Labour party politician for if he does not defend the poor and the homeless? The Labour movement sprang up to fight for the unfortunate many against the selfish indifference of the rich few: its heroes and heroines, whatever their backgrounds, were determined that poor people should have decent lives and roofs over their heads and that the richest people should sacrifice some of their privileges to that end. That is what the party was always supposed to be for. So what, then, is the point of Frank Dobson? Dobson is a senior Labour politician of solid left-wing credentials and a high income, who refuses to give up his extremely desirable council flat in central London. The image of a dog in a manger springs instantly to mind and a supposedly socialist dog at that. There are 5m people on council house waiting lists in this country, yet council housing is often occupied by the well-off, paying hugely subsidised low rents at the expense of the poor.

To deal with this obvious injustice, the Conservative-led government — Labour would never have done it — has recently proposed giving new powers to councils to force rich people to leave their council houses and flats — their social housing — to make room for poor people in desperate need. Rich in this case really does mean rich by national standards: it means tenants whose earnings are above £100,000 a year — a tiny number of people at the top end of society. Eighty per cent of households have net incomes well under £40,000 and 60% of households have well under £30,000.

Yet Dobson refuses to budge. He says he earns £66,000 a year and therefore cannot afford to move out and pay rent in the private sector, because property prices and rents in London are “insane”. The market rent for his present flat would be about £1,000 a week, while he probably pays about £160 to the council. He claims to feel wholly entitled to stay and makes no apology for taking up space that was originally intended for the poor. I wonder what the long-dead heroes of the Labour movement would say to that.

Of course Dobson is being disingenuous: £66,000 a year is not all he gets. His wife is a university lecturer, he claimed about £70,000 in parliamentary expenses last year, he is entitled to his state pension and presumably a parliamentary pension and so his total household income is highly likely to be at least £100,000 a year. Only about 1% of the population is in that position. His finances are so secure that he seems hardly to need to budget: he said last week he “does not know” exactly how much rent he pays to Camden council for his handsome 19th-century mansion block flat. Why doesn’t he know? Poor people in real need of council housing count every penny.

One can only wonder about Dobson’s understanding of social reality, either now or, more important, when he was a stalwart cabinet minister. Did the chauffeured cars and red carpets of ministerial life rob him of whatever common sense he started with, as they usually do? How does he think ordinary people survive in London on incomes far, far smaller than his? And why does he think he has some inalienable human right to live in a highly desirable, luxurious building in one of the most expensive parts of central London at public expense — which is to say at the expense of the 99% of the population who have less money than he does? He could perfectly well, like everybody else, live somewhere cheaper, and on his income he could certainly afford to stay in his neighbourhood, no matter what he says.

The greedy shamelessness of Labour politicians is one of life’s many mysteries. Cherie and Tony Blair spring to mind, clawing their way into the ranks of the super-rich despite their youthful ideals. Then there is the case of Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader who managed to destroy his industry, who was thrown out of his union in the wake of a dispute over the £250,000 he was claiming for renting a smart second home in London after his retirement.

Bob Crow, too, was recently exposed by this newspaper for this same extraordinary sense of entitlement: he is the militant head of the RMT transport workers’ union who, despite his income of £145,000 a year, is living in social housing at an estimated rent of £150 a week. He, too, is quite unrepentant: an RMT spokesman said that “Bob Crow makes no apology for living in social housing at the heart of his local community”. But why not? Perhaps he thinks the benefit of his reassuring presence at the heart of his community is consolation enough for those on the council house waiting list who have nowhere to lay their heads at night.

Behind such awesome figures as these there are, for me, all the countless Bollinger bolsheviks I have ever come across, who while denouncing the privileges of the posh are themselves to be seen at the best addresses and the best seats at the opera, accepting peerages after decades of sneering at lords and ladies and generally displaying a shameless indifference to the poor that is particularly breathtaking in people who claim to be champions of the people.

I remember when the young socialist Denis MacShane, later a Labour minister, was attacked by a friend of ours for wearing an extremely expensive designer tie in the impoverished 1970s. “Nothing is too good for the representative of the people,” he replied. That was a joke, but there was altogether too much truth in it.

Housing prices in London are indeed insane, as Dobson says. However, they did not become so overnight. His own government presided over the biggest property boom, particularly in London, ever seen and encouraged a huge influx of immigrants who now need housing. Yet both the Blair and Brown governments spectacularly failed to build social housing, creating half as much on average each year as the Conservatives when in office — 51,000 a year under the Conservatives but only 23,000 a year under Labour, according to government figures.

That was painfully inadequate in both cases — it is a national disgrace — but as he was one of the senior Labour ministers responsible for this Labour failure, it is shameful for Dobson to display the selfish indifference of the very rich, against which Labour fought for so long, simply because he has acquired a false sense of entitlement like Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm. There is absolutely no point in Labour politicians like him.