I’ll keep it brief, because I’m nearing the end of my tolerance for this stuff. We started with a minute’s silence and the local minister, Steve Chalke, calling on us to show respect for democracy – which he said meant listening to each other. As chance would have it this hustings were being held in the church that for several months last year put a blackboard up outside inviting passersby to write down their ‘hopes and prayers’ for the community, and they would pray for them. I wrote down quite a few, including: ‘A plague on this Tory government that is a plague on the people of Britain!’ ‘Stop Lambeth Labour Council demolishing Cressingham Gardens!’ ‘May the working class rise up against the oppression of the rich and the corrupt’ And finally, when it seemed none of my prayers were being answered: ‘May the church condemn this government’s attacks on the poor, the disabled, the sick and the vulnerable!’ I don’t know whether the church ever prayed for any of these, but eventually the blackboard was taken down.
After the opening statements by the five candidates, which included for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Pirate party (promoting technology and online privacy) and the Women’s Equality Party, the Chair, Tom Kibasi, who is the Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, chose questions that been submitted by the audience in the following order of importance. To give you an indiction of how long each topic was discussed I also recorded roughly when the questions were asked:
7.45pm – Brexit
8.20pm – Voting ID and proportional representation
8.25pm – Fox hunting
8.30pm – Banking reforms
8.35pm – National debt
8.45pm – Arts subjects in schools
8.50pm – Child care nurseries
9.00pm – Local transport
9.05pm – Cycling and cars
9.10pm – Housing
As you can see, some really pressing questions here. It was like listening to applicants at a job interview – which is of course exactly what this is:
– ‘Are you for or against fox hunting?’
– ‘Oh I’m definitely against fox hunting!’
– ‘Do you think arts subjects in schools are important?’
– ‘Well, my mother is an art teacher so I think they’re really important!’
– ‘Should we have more cycle lanes?’
– ‘Oh yes, I’ve been a cyclist all my life!’
– ‘Should our banks be reformed?’
– ‘Oh yes, our banks should definitely be reformed.’
– ‘Do we need more child care?’
– ‘Oh yes, I have three children so childcare is really important!’
– ‘Is our national debt too big?’
– ‘Oh yes, our national debt is definitely too big!’
We sat through an hour and three quarters of this, when finally a question on housing was taken. I can’t now remember what Hannah said, as she started by talking about the importance of cycling, but I seem to remember she said we needed more ‘affordable housing’. In fact, the phrase ‘affordable housing’ had crept into the conversation a few times, and was even used by the Liberal Democrat candidate, the housing campaigner George Turner, who really should know better. ‘Affordable housing’, which increasingly means £650,000 properties for shared ownership, is precisely what our council estates are being replaced with. That doesn’t mean George talked about housing, as he kept his comments almost exclusively to Brexit and the fact the Labour candidate, Kate Hoey, had voted to leave the EU. Something strange happens to people when they enter the political arena. They stop speaking like the rest of us, and become a ventriloquist’s doll, speaking the platitudes of their party. I’ve never met George before, but from his articles on housing he seems like an intelligent bloke, and last night was a lost opportunity for him to shine a spotlight on Labour’s disastrous housing record in the constituency.
Now, the Chair had also taken follow-up questions from the floor on each topic, so even though I had slipped into a state of catatonia by now I put my hand up, at which point, at 9.15pm, he called the session to an end and called for the candidates to do their summing up. I shouted out:
– ‘What about estate demolition?’
– ‘I’m sorry there’s no time.’
– ‘But there is to discuss fox hunting?’
– ‘You should have submitted a question.’
– ‘I did. Here it is.’
– ‘I haven’t got it.’
– ‘I’ll ask it now then.’
General clamour from the floor – ‘Respect the Chair!’
– ‘There are three estates and thousands of homes in this constituency threatened with demolition by Lambeth Labour council.’
– ‘That’s a council matter, not parliamentary politics.’
– ‘Does the fact you’re Director of IPPR, which promotes the demolition of council estates have anything to do with your refusal to take my question?’
– ‘What are you talking about?’
– ‘Or that the think-tank you head recommended recategorising existing council estates as brownfield land?’
By this time everyone was shouting at me. The woman from the Kennington Park Road Residents Association and Neighbourhood Watch (KPRRANW) who organised the hustings was defending her choice of Chair. I think the minister was saying something about democracy. And someone projected a big slide on the wall saying: ‘Please respect the opinions of others!’ I noticed afterwards that it also said: ‘Be ready to be challenged’ – but no-one mentioned that.
The room reminded me of a Momentum meeting we once went to in Vauxhall. Almost entirely white and middle to upper-middle class, I doubt many of them had even been on an estate. Apparently there were no less than four questions submitted about fox hunting. Hannah told me afterwards that the woman sitting next to her said in response to my interruption: ‘This is what happens when you let young people in!’ We’d been arguing by now for several minutes, easily long enough for me to have asked my question, so I turned to the room and asked:
– ‘Who would like to hear a question about estate demolition?’
The answer was a unanimous – ‘No!’ The lone exception was a pink-haired working-class woman a few rows in front of us who had tried to ask a question earlier about the effect of austerity measures on people living in estates. Austerity was just one of a whole range of topics such as homelessness, poverty, soup kitchens, benefit cuts, the Vauxhall, Nine Elms & Battersea opportunity area and the 22,000 households on Lambeth’s housing waiting list that were deemed not as important for discussion as fox hunting and cycle lanes.
In the concluding statements that followed, the candidates for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party stated their position on estate demolition. So afterwards I went up to the Chair (who had been having a staring contest with me all the way through George’s last words) and pointed out that it turned out the candidates did want to talk about estate demolition, so why had he refused to take my question?
– ‘I didn’t receive your question in advance.’
– ‘I sent it in this afternoon, and you were still taking questions from the public at the door on the way in.’
– ‘We don’t have time to ask every question.’
– ‘And your directorship of IPPR had nothing to do with your refusal to take my question from the floor?’
– ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’
– ‘It’s titled City Villages: More homes, better communities, published in March 2015, recommending that the greatest source of land in London for redevelopment is that on which existing council estates are built.’
– ‘We publish a lot of reports. I wasn’t director then.’
– ‘Is it because IPPR is supported by Savills real estate firm who are advising Lambeth Labour council on their estate demolition programme?’
– ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’
– ‘Why do I know more about your organisation than its director?’
– ‘I wasn’t director when that report was published.’
– ‘Is it because the IPPR set up the London Housing Commission last year to advise the candidates for the next London mayor to build 50,000 homes a year on demolished council estates?’
At this point the woman from the KPRRANW said she took ‘full responsibility’ for choosing Tom Kibasi as Chair. I told her he was a poor choice, and that it was a disgrace someone who was promoting estate demolition was chairing hustings in a borough where three estates were under threat and one, Myatt’s Field North, had already been demolished and redeveloped with disastrous results.
I walked off then, but as I did so Tom turned to me and said – ‘Scumbag!’ I always like how the middle-classes are so keen on what they call ‘behaviour’, and are so quick to look down their noses at the swearing of the working class and dismiss the anger of the people whose lives they’re casually destroying. But contradict them, put them on the spot, dare to question their authority, and the abuse flows from their mouths.
I turned back to him and clarified what he had said. My fellow ASH member had heard him too, and she took a photograph of the two of us to commemorate the moment. We continued our conversation a little longer. Even though he had just called me a scumbag, Tom started telling me how angry I was and to ‘calm down!’ Have you noticed that, whenever the middle classes are rattled, they start telling you what to do? We see it all the time in council meetings when residents dare to contradict councillors with facts, and of course by parliamentary candidates put on the spot about their support for estate demolition.
The director of IPPR told me that the reports it produces are the opinions of the individual authors, and that his personal view was that we should build more social housing, not demolish council estates and make ‘affordable’ housing affordable.
– ‘So why didn’t you bring this topic up for discussion in the hustings?’
What was most annoying about last night wasn’t the Chair, though. I knew he’d do everything he could to silence any talk about estate demolition. It was the servile obedience of the audience to middle-class etiquette, their willingness to be told what to do by a Church that has stood by and said nothing to condemn what the Tories have done to this country over the past ten years but assumes it can tell us how to behave in a political debate, and their complete indifference to what is happening to the working class in their borough. For them, it’s all just a game of behaviour. As the time given to each topic showed, the only thing that really gets the middle classes worried is the threat Brexit represents to their standard of living, whether their children can still have a gap year in Croatia, and will they still be able to buy a second home in Marbella.
And that’s about it. Another two hours of my life I won’t get back. I think I’ve got one hustings left in me, then I’m out. The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once remarked: ‘Never ask how sausages and politics are made!’ Give me a sausage factory any day.
For the record, this is the question we submitted to the Vauxhall hustings 2017:
‘The Vauxhall constituency contains three council estates on Lambeth Labour council’s current estate demolition programme: Fenwick, Westbury and Knight’s Walk. Elsewhere in the borough, the council have ignored the 79 per cent of residents on Central Hill estate and the 80 per cent of residents on Cressingham Gardens estate who voted against the demolition of their homes and the privatisation of the new developments under Homes for Lambeth. If elected MP of the Vauxhall constituency, will the candidate oppose or support the thousands of residents and constituents threatened by Lambeth Labour council’s programme of estate demolition?’
In response to the failure of these hustings to discuss the issue of housing, Architects for Social Housing has arranged a hustings devoted exclusively to the housing crisis and the role of Lambeth Labour council’s estate demolition programme in making it worse. We will also be looking at the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea opportunity area, which is one of the largest developments in Europe and yet has been entirely missing from the debates. It will also be an opportunity to cross-examine the housing policies of the competing parties and their implications for London’s housing estates. We invite all candidates, constituents, residents and campaigners to attend, to ask our future MP whether and how they will stand up to an increasingly unaccountable Progress council that ignores the wishes of residents, and to discuss how we can form a progressive alliance against the London-wide programme of estate demolition. Details of the hustings can be found here. Please join us.
Architects for Social Housing