AT THE RISK OF sounding politically cynical, if ever there was an issue on which the Labour Party could make some badly-needed political headway and begin to mark itself out as an alternative-in-waiting to the National government, it is the issue of housing. Yet, as it is on most issues, it has again been found wanting.
The Government's continued denials that there is an housing crisis are sounding increasingly shrill and even its usual sympathisers in the media don't believe them. Yesterday I heard Radio Live's Duncan Garner pouring scorn on the Government's insistence it has it all under control. Yet shortly before the last election he gave the Government his 'big tick' for its management of the economy.
Meanwhile over on Checkpoint on RNZ , the man who Garner replaced on TV3 went out into the streets of Otara to talk to the people. John Campbell discovered people living in houses with as many as a dozen others, including children. One woman appeared to have lost count of how many people she was sharing the single bathroom with.
The woman was too young to remember a fourth Labour Government that told us that the policies of neoliberalism would bring prosperity for us all.
Ever more people simply cannot afford to rent in Auckland, our major city, even if they work full time. Many are living in overcrowded and often substandard housing, many are living in cars, many in garages - although rapacious landlords are also renting out garages to people who are so desperate they allow themselves to be screwed over. The vampires are sucking people dry.
It is a similar situation in Christchurch where I live. Escalating rents and low wages have caught many people in an economic pincer they cannot easily escape.
Yet the doggedly dull and cautious Labour Party, stagnating in the opinion polls despite a failing economy, has no answers. Like the various pundits and economists who clog the media it is incapable of viewing the housing crisis through anything but the narrow lens of the failed economic orthodoxy.
Labour's housing spokesperson Phil Twyford effectively told the NZ Planning Council last month that his party's solution amounted to little more than tinkering with the market framework:
"Our commitment is to free up the restrictions on density, reform the use of urban growth boundaries to stop them driving up section costs, and modernise the way infrastructure for development is financed."
When new solutions that aren't beholden to 'the market' are urgently required, Labour has nothing. While the housing crisis deepens, there is a policy paralysis among the political parties that claim to represent us. Labour's 'solution' merely fiddles at the edges of a dying economic system, one that is unable to deliver a meaningful standard of living for larger and larger percentages of the population.
It was Friedrich Engels who wrote in 'The Housing Question' that there was no such thing as a housing crisis in itself, rather, the crisis is within capitalism. While this is true, our failed economic system is not about to be overturned just yet. But it is time to bring the housing question back to system change - and break the futile and endless debate about 'policy settings' and the like. All this does is give the commentariat something to graze on, like contented dairy cows.
We can do that by demanding that affordable housing should be a basic right now, not one pushed out to some time in a future that never actually arrives. The solution to the housing crisis is clear: freely available secure tenancy in high quality social housing that is run for social good, not for profit. That this should be viewed as a radical and unrealistic demand by the Labour Party once again highlights just out of touch the party is with the public mood. It is defending a system that is proving incapable of providing individuals and families with affordable housing, a basic need. It is little wonder then, come 2017, a million or so disillusioned and cynical people will again not bother to vote.