Pity the landlords: John McDonnell wants Labour to introduce a private sector Right To Buy

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell enjoying himself. Image: Getty.

In 2015, Dan Wilson-Craw of Generation Rent used these pages to present a modest proposal: a new right for tenants in the private rental sector to buy their homes. Right To Buy had boosted home ownership and won the Tories the votes of gratefully homeowners before, he noted – why not again?

I published this article with tongue firmly in cheek, fully aware that no Tory government is ever going to trash private property rights in this way. But shadow chancellor John McDonnell is not a Tory, and he’s quite up for it. From the Financial Times:

Mr McDonnell said he wanted to “tackle the burgeoning buy-to-let market” to make it easier for workers to buy the homes they live in. He suggested the sum paid by tenants would not necessarily be the market price. “You’d want to establish what is a reasonable price, you can establish that and then that becomes the right to buy,” he said. “You (the government) set the criteria. I don’t think it’s complicated.”

If this actually became policy it would, I’m sure, have some slightly uncomfortable consequences. The government does not generally interfere with property rights except in extreme circumstances, like a big war. At risk of saying something sympathetic towards landlords, for many of them, their Buy To Let serves as a sort of pension: unwinding that without due care and attention could cause problems elsewhere that the state may come to regret.


And it’s not clear exactly what “a reasonable price” means. The original Right To Buy involved huge discounts. Could the government really force people to sell stuff at below market value?

All that said, I’m not buying the hysteria coming from a lot of the people on the right who are even now attacking McDonnell over this. All the criticisms I listed above seem to me to apply equally to the original Right To Buy, in which national government forced local councils – entirely different legal entities, answerable to a different group of people – to sell their assets at a discount and then nicked the takings.

That, too, is an attack on property rights, unless you consider every bit of the British government to be a single institution which it isn’t, and it undermined the finances of those councils. What’s more, the Cameron-era extension of Right To Buy to housing association properties went even further, by forcing organisations that weren’t even part of government – private organisations! – to sell properties to their tenants.

So, all in all, it is extremely unclear to me how you can support the existing Right To Buy schemes but object to McDonnell’s proposals without being quite ludicrously inconsistent. Not that this, in the age of Boris Johnson, is likely to stop anyone.

There is one thing that makes me feel warmly towards McDonnell’s plan, despite my nervousness: it’s that the rentier class absolutely hate it. This morning the Residential Landlords Association put out a press release warning that the policy would result in a “mass sell-off of properties”, as if reducing the number of homes owned by landlords wasn’t literally the entire point of the exercise. Persuading landlords to sell, after all, will free up more homes for owner occupiers: it’s not like they’re going to demolish the things in a fit of pique, is it?

The press release in question was headlined,

“Labour’s Right to Buy Plans Would Kill Off Private Rented Sector”

To which the obvious response is: “Right. But would it have any negative consequences?”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.