Sweet deals and Labour defeat, a lesson from social housing?

Was Labour beaten by its own ‘pork barrel’ game?

Mark Cantrell
8 min readMay 8, 2021

‘Pork barrel’ politics is cited as one possible reason for Conservative victory in Hartlepool, but if so has Boris Johnson not simply applied a lesson learned from Labour’s policies towards social housing, back when it was last in government? By Mark Cantrell

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

THIS is analogy not analysis, but in the wake of the Labour Party’s latest electoral misfortunes — chief among them the striking loss of Hartlepool — the social housing sector seemed to offer a metaphor for its defeat.

No doubt, this sounds a little odd, so before we begin let’s have some scene setting. There’s a lot of talk — and recrimination — right now as to why Labour lost Hartlepool to the Conservatives in what has been a round of largely lacklustre elections for the party.

Sir Keir Starmer’s lack of leadership is one suggestion; Labour’s lack of vision is another; the party is too ‘woke’, or too distant from the realities of life on the ground far from metropolitan London; others scathingly called the voters of Hartlepool ‘too reactionary’ to know their own good; you get the picture.

Expect a lot more of this bitter brew in the days and weeks ahead, but listening to the news, catching a few tweets, and reading some of the commentary in the national press, there was one point that stirred the makings of this piece.

Simply put, it goes that enough of the town’s formerly Labour voters marked their ballots for the Tories in the hope this might bring forth some government cash and investment. Hartlepool, like many of the so-called former ‘Red Wall’ towns across the North and Midlands that turned blue in the 2019 general election, are looking for a future beyond the economic stagnation and decline that has typically been their lot for decades.

As Aditya Chakrabortty said in his Guardian piece yesterday: “Starmer growls about ‘Major Sleaze’ serving the money men — but never delivers the obvious punchline that only he is on the public’s side. The impression is that all politicians are corrupt. His lieutenants complain about the Tories buying up seats with the sweeties of public investment and government jobs — but rarely say what they would offer, because they haven’t worked that bit out. The result is that voters look at the pork barrel and decide they quite fancy a bacon sarnie, too.”

Labour has not, historically speaking, treated its heartlands all that well. It’s taken them for granted, overlooked them, treated voters as ballot fodder, and generally looked down on them from distant Westminster. More could be said of Labour dominated councils, too; those the party has long held often became somewhat insular; seats of deep-rooted hubris and entitlement.

Yes, a lot more can be said about councils; they are not blameless, but whether or not the Tories really are playing a ‘pork barrel’ game, who can blame people for reaching out for a splash of cash, in the hope it might brighten their future?

These areas need investment and jobs; they need hope, and if Labour cannot offer it, of course people will look elsewhere, however unpalatable that choice might once have appeared to them.

So, are the voters of Hartlepool simply a ‘reactionary bunch of Brexit bigots’? Or are they simply people tired of their lot, reaching out for change, any change that might lead to a more promising land? Desperate times often result in desperate gambits. Johnson and his cronies, surely, know this very well.

England — indeed the wider UK — is notoriously unequal and rife with social and economic inequities. In health outcomes, life chances, jobs and pay, educational opportunity, it’s all skewed towards a handful of big urban centres. Chief among them, of course, is London.

This is a country that is renowned for its ‘bottom-heavy’ over-centralisation; so much opportunity and investment is pooled within the capital and its hinterland. Everywhere else tends to be left to struggle on short shrift, if they’re not actually left to rot. It’s an old story, and often one that the main parties have tended to address with rhetoric, half measures and empty promises.

In recent years, Lord Bob Kerslake — former head of the Civil Service — chaired the UK 2070 Commission. It produced a series of reports looking at regional inequalities across the UK. Its findings were grim. Such was the imbalance between England’s centres of investment and prosperity and ‘left behind’ places, it compared swathes of England to the dilapidated state of the former Soviet-era East Germany on the eve of reunification.

Around the same period, Homes for the North — an alliance of 19 of the largest developer housing associations operating in Northern England — published the findings of its own commissioned research. This explored how the methods government used to calculate the levels of investment needed for infrastructure — including housing — in different parts of the country was skewed towards areas that were already economically thriving.

Inevitably, this meant that areas in dire need of further investment across the North of England and the Midlands were losing out to prosperous areas in the South East. In effect, the unintended consequence of this investment calculus was crippling efforts to regenerate and revitalise Northern regional economies, if not effectively locking them into decline. Again, it offered a grim prognosis for people living in such under-invested areas.

Since then, following his historic Red Wall election wins, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed a ‘levelling up’ of the country. So far, it’s largely been more rhetorical than substantial, given the pressures of Covid-19, but even so there have been worrying concerns that ‘levelling up’ funding has thus far tended to favour Conservative-controlled areas.

Word tends to get round; who can blame people for wanting — as Chakrabortty had it — a taste of the bacon? With that, let’s turn to that analogy from the world of social housing.

Back in the years of the last Labour government, there was a concerted effort to diminish the tenure in favour of homeownership. Then as now, aspiration was the buzzword, and social tenants tended to be considered the ‘poor relations’ who needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

This was the era of so-called large scale voluntary stock transfer (LSVT) of council housing from local authority ownership to housing associations. Essentially it was privatisation, but the sector was none too keen about the use of the word and tended to get sniffy whenever it was used. They preferred the language of consultation and democratic choice, even though the options were heavily weighted one way.

In fairness, tenants were given the say; stock transfers couldn’t go ahead without a majority (of the turnout) voting in favour. However, there was a lot of — dare we say — ‘pork’ attached to the transfer option. Little wonder, so many tenants the length and breadth of England voted to say adiós to their council landlord.

Councils, as the major breed of social landlord prior to the stock transfer era, hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory during their decades of dominance. Yes, there were good ones and bad ones, much like housing associations today; there were those that neglected their stock, that treated tenants with a barely disguised contempt, and who couldn’t wait to see the back of both the homes and the people they housed.

The feeling among tenants, it must be said, was often mutual; they were eager to break away, too. Hmm, might we say shades of Brexit? But not all councils, or tenant bodies, were quite so keen on cutting loose. That’s why some councils are still landlords to this day, even if they now rank as a minority provider.

For those tenants that voted to remain with their council landlord, much to the chagrin of the Labour ministers of the day, there was certainly something of an undertone that implied they’d expressed a poor choice. This was not the outcome government expected or desired. Bloody tenants don’t know what’s good for them!

That said, there were stock transfers where neither party — tenant or council — was overly committed to such an outcome. For a few, it was a case of sad partings, but needs must. The sweetener — or clincher — for stock transfer was the allure of much-needed investment in the social homes.

This is where the ‘pork’ comes into play. The option to transfer to a housing association came with the promise of millions of pounds of government cash to invest in refurbishing the former council homes. If tenants voted to remain with the council, they got nothing.

Decent Homes, as the programme was known, was a ten-plus year initiative to modernise millions of the nation’s social housing stock. It was a fairly basic standard, offering modern bathrooms and kitchens, the replacement of single-paned windows with uPVC double glazing, roof repairs, central heating systems, improved insulation and the like.

A lot of these homes desperately needed the work, but councils either lacked the finances — thanks to government rules — to maintain the properties adequately, or else they lacked the will. Some tenants were living in homes that were still kitted out to standards more fit for the 1950s or 60s than the late 90s and early 00s. They were cold, they could be expensive to heat, and they were generally shabby.

You can hardly blame people if they voted for some much-needed home improvements, and maybe the hope that a housing association would be less inclined to neglect their needs as both tenants and citizens.

One can dream. The experience of stock transfer — as you might expect — is a mixed bag, sometimes within the same organisation. Some are earning credit for their efforts, others have proved no less susceptible as their council forebears to disregarding tenants or neglecting the quality of their homes.

For sure, there are good housing associations and bad. There are plenty that are indifferent. Some have consolidated into behemoths far removed from the communities they claim to serve; often difficult to discern from hard-nosed private sector corporations. Others have eschewed ‘growth’ and remained in a close relationship with the people they house.

All of them, of course, have an impact on the families living in their houses, on the communities and settlements where they operate; so too on the local economies and civil societies they find themselves in. Inevitably, they impose consequences on the people around them. Many, you might say, are born of Labour’s love affair with stock transfer. Does that make them the bygone government’s bastard offspring? That’s for tenants to decide.

Bad council landlords had their comeuppance, courtesy of stock transfer; housing associations are yet to face their day of reckoning (deserved or otherwise). Meanwhile, for Labour’s chiefs, over the last few years those reckonings just seem to keep on coming.

The reasons are many, of course, but in a very real sense the past is evidently catching up with them. Like council landlords of old, they’ve too often taken their ‘tenants’ for granted; now come the consequences, but as ever it’s we little people — the tenants, the voters — that ultimately pay the price. Pork can be expensive, if you’re of limited means.

Okay, so even as a mental exercise this analogy is something of a stretch, but swap ‘council’ and ‘housing association’ for Labour and Tory, and then consider: with his ‘levelling up’ agenda, is Johnson playing the same game Labour once played in the more parochial arena of social housing?

Vote Tory, get some much-needed improvements to your home; vote Labour, well sorry chum, we can’t help you — you’ll just have to lump it. Is it any wonder Starmer & co find themselves off so many people’s menus? Food for thought. How’s the bacon?




Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at tykewriter.wordpress.com