As we consign Right to Buy to history, let's continue with radical change

Given the pace of events this summer, you could easily forget just how slow political change can be. More than a decade and a half after devolution in Scotland, and with the Conservatives never having been even close to power at Holyrood, you’d have thought that the legacy of Margaret Thatcher would have been long buried, at least when it comes to issues within the control of Scotland’s own Parliament, such as social housing.

But this week we finally consign to history one part of that legacy – the “Right to Buy”. In reality it wasn’t just a right for tenants to exercise; it was an obligation for councils to sell, and to sell at a substantial discount. It depleted the stock of social housing, not only in numbers but also in quality as the most desirable properties were steadily transferred into private ownership. And while in the first instance it was former tenants who continued to live in the homes they had once rented and subsequently owned, over time quite a lot of that housing went back onto the rental market via private landlords, while more and more people found that social housing was simply unavailable to meet their needs.

What’s striking is quite how long it took to finally do away with this legislation. Year after year, the case was made. Year after year, the Scottish Parliament saw only modest restrictions and amendments to the law. Reduced discounts, ‘pressured areas’ and other measures were brought in so that the Right to Buy withered away, rather than being abolished in a single stroke.

That difference between urgent, radical action and ‘small steps in the right direction’ is sometimes a difference between political parties, but it can also be seen in the internal tensions a party contains. There were those in the Scottish Labour Party during its eight years in power at Holyrood who argued for the outright abolition of RTB, and for a wholesale investment in social housing. Others saw stock transfer away from councils as “the only game in town”, taking their cue from the UK Labour government which had largely ruled out local government borrowing for major public investment without a role for the private sector.

There can’t be much doubt that a left-leaning UK Labour Party would have set a very different context both for councils and for the newly devolved administrations. Those who still speak up for the New Labour project of course would claim they’d never have got into power at all without accepting the Thatcher legacy, including privatisation of anything from railways to social housing. They might have thought incremental change possible, but they’d have baulked at the idea of radicalism.

I also suspect they’d reject even now the idea that by holding back the radical potential of the devolution they themselves had helped create, they ultimately lost the confidence of the public. It’s surely undeniable that they also lost the commitment of those who once saw value in keeping the radical strands of the Labour Party together with its more centrist elements. The open warfare within their ranks now sees each wing accuse the other of being willing to risk splitting the party and keeping the Tories in power.

Speaking of whom, they must be feeling pretty smug right now. Theresa May must find it hard to believe her luck that while she’s been dealt a difficult hand – losing a major referendum which divided her own party, inheriting a slim majority and a period of political and economic turmoil ahead – her main opponents are in such utter disarray.

But this brings me to the irony which should give no comfort to anyone on the left who makes the case for radical change, whether on housing or anything else. Because it’s the party which still uses the word ‘conservative’ in its name which in fact engineers radically divisive change. Few people would have knowingly voted for the decimation of social housing, but framed as the Right to Buy it became popular. Few people would have agreed to the savaging of their other public services in the name of radical austerity, but framed (by an outgoing Labour minister!) with the words “there’s no money left”, many were manipulated into supporting it. Now people have been tricked into voting away their own right of free movement in Europe, because the debate was framed in terms of hostility to immigrants exercising the same right.

The decades of radical change we’ve witnessed, serving the interests of the wealthy against those of the common good, must not be seen as a case for slow incremental change instead. They demonstrate the need for a compelling vision of the better society we deserve, one which is truly worth reaching for. A ‘small step in the right direction’ just doesn’t cut it.

This article first appeared in the National