Greasy Pole: Flint’s Hard Line
“She prefers to ignore the real complications hampering so many people when they must face the need to survive through employment”
Anyone with a surname like hers will need to become insensitive to pedestrian jokes about it so we shall not risk adding to Caroline Flint’s irritation with feeble cracks about her being hard and unyielding or liable to strike sparks to light your fag. In any case it is clear that her confidence is more than enough to brush off such attempts at humour; for example on a recent episode of The Politics Show she showed herself to be a match for the suffocating conceit of Andrew Neill, persisting in making her point – albeit a typically weary New Labour one – in spite of the presenter’s contemptuous interruptions. Obviously, this Blair Babe will not easily be shaken off her ascent of the Greasy Pole. So it was significant that, as the newly-promoted Minister of State for Housing and Planning she should choose to make her first serious bid for self-publicity with a proposal that unemployed council house tenants who fail to display the appropriate energy in looking for work should risk eviction. This was serious stuff, a challenge to the crustier of Labour’s dogmatists.
In any effective sense, council housing originated just after the 1914/18 War, when councils were able to build on a large scale by access to government subsidies. Massive slum clearance was encouraged by the 1930 Housing Act and the housing shortage after the Second World War saw the peak of council building, including huge inner-city estates some of which have acquired such grim reputations. Flint acknowledged that her speech was likely to stimulate a “strong debate”. That should be a warning to us all for in the mouths of New Labour leaders “debate” does not mean a free discussion culminating in a popular, constructive conclusion. Rather it serves notice that, to keep favour with as many voters as possible, there will be an enforced policy change emphatic enough to amount to a denial of what once stood as the party’s inviolable, defining principles. Council housing was originally designed to provide homes built to standards way above those of profit-hungry private contractors to be available at rents, set by the democratically elected council, affordable by the ordinary, working people in their area. This article of faith for Labour supporters encouraged numerous architects’ fantasies of sensitively designed estates where the lucky inhabitants could take their ease in safely pedestrianised areas beneath lush green trees. For the tenants an estate address was not supposed to act as a status symbol; but more a badge of communal security.
As she is the Minister for Housing, it has to be assumed that Flint is aware of councils’ statutory duty to provide for homeless people (although the exact definition of “homeless” can vary from one council to another and from time to time). In fact this legal obligation has caused families and individuals with what are known as “multiple problems” – mental and physical illness, addictive personalities, a history of institutional care – being placed by councils in their own, more easily available, accommodation, thus creating the dreaded “sink estates”. It is common for unemployment to be a contributory symptom of those other problems, which may be behind Flint’s sneer at the “no one works around here” culture which she said takes a grip on some communities. The most casual of visits to some estates can impress with the aimless apathy there, too often taken out in assaults on the fabric of the area. In one such high-rise hell in West London people hang dazedly around as the entrails of telephone junction boxes lie strewn across the pavement. A tenant who had just emerged from a long prison sentence was welcomed home by a TV set aimed at him from an upper level balcony (it missed – he later beat up the person responsible). Such places have a stigma of their own, often originating in the very sense of a supportive community which the estate pattern of living was supposed to encourage. A recent letter in the Guardian recalled that when the writer first moved to York she was advised that to try for a job with her address on the Tang Hall estate was to ensure that her application would be ignored; much more hopeful to say she lived in Heworth, which had a happier reputation.
Flint suggests that this can be dealt with by making new council tenants sign a “commitment contract” to seek and participate in skills training programmes with a view to employment. She did not say whether the opposite process would apply – whether anyone who had demonstrated their commitment by training and getting a job would then be entitled to council housing. She prefers to ignore the real complications hampering so many people when they must face the need to survive through employment. Her argument was effectively exposed by Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter:
“The government wants to return Britain’s unemployed to the workhouse by throwing them onto the streets. What is being proposed would destroy families and communities and add to the thousands who are already homeless.”
In many cases a worker who is unemployed, untrained and aimless, finds their situation complicated by their making unwise life choices. Flint herself should be aware of this and should take it into account when she is ranting about the unemployed and the homeless. When she was 23, a trainee manager at the Greater London Council who had been through college where, like so many other prospective Labour ministers, she smoked cannabis, she met a man while on holiday in Tunisia. Perhaps it was his commitment to training and employment, and that of his family, which impressed her; his father was Tunisia’s Attorney General and he himself was a high earning stock market dealer. At any rate, she said he swept her off her feet; two children were born to them but the man’s family disapproved and eventually the couple married hastily in London where the reality of family life in poverty confronted them and essentially destroyed their relationship. Alleging that he had two convictions for violence, one of them against the police, Flint obtained a Restraining Order against him and soon afterwards he was arrested and deported on the grounds that he had no permanent home in this country. A year later they were divorced, leaving Flint to brush off the experience as an event which “unfortunately didn’t work out”.
In any case the episode did not hamper her career, which took her through jobs in local government and the GMB trade union until she was elected for Don Valley in the Labour landslide of 1997. In the Commons she voted as the whips required on matters such as Trident renewal, ID cards, the war in Iraq, justifying Andrew Roth’s assessment of her in the Guardian as a “loyal Blairite with a soft line in stooge questions” – which shows just how hard an operator she really is. She held a series of minor jobs until in the reshuffle of January this year she was appointed to Housing and Planning, a job which entails her attending the Cabinet. She may prefer to forget her victory in a 2007 poll to find “The Sexiest Female Politician” as well as her experience as Campaign manager for Hazel Blears’s attempts to become the Deputy Leader, in which Blears came sixth. Unless she takes consolation from the fact that this may have opened the way for her own attempt at a top job some time in the future.