Grant Shapps and the problem with politics

By Emma.
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Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been”. The career of Grant Shapps is a clear example of everything that is wrong with the way politics and democracy can work against each other.

Let’s forget this week’s astonishing revelations about his extra-curricular activity - clearly it doesn’t bother Cameron enough to give him pause before promoting Shapps.

Since the election Grant Shapps has been the Housing Minister. Since the election, house building has collapsed dragging the country back into recession. At a time when waiting lists for social housing top 5 million, social housing has collapsed with a drop of 91% in building starts in the last year. Some Tory councils will build fewer than 20 new social homes over the course of this government. Shapp’s own constituency is likely to build just one new social home a year. In fact, construction data has today dropped again to the lowest levels since the height of the crash.

At a time when there should be a single-minded focus on housing provision, Shapp’s last audition piece was an interview with the Telegraph where he took one last swipe at those who live in social housing trying to re-brand this as “taxpayer supported” housing.

Let’s look at this for a moment, because it emphasises everything that is wrong with Shapps approach to this job.

Firstly, it’s a simplistic and frankly wrong. Anyone who ever collected mortgage interest tax relief on their privately owned home could be described as living in taxpayer supported housing. Secondly, the key thing Grant Shapps has been trying to push – harder than anything else – is the reinvigoration of the “right to buy”, with discounts being offered of up to £75,000. What is that if not taxpayer-supported housing? But as these homes would no longer be social stock, under Shapps’ new whim they would not be branded as such. If this announcement had been about housing it would have been yet another stupid, muddled and grossly offensive move. And it is of course all those things.

But it was not about housing. Shapps’ behaviour in this brief has never been about housing. It has been about Shapps and the promotion of his brand as  a leader of the right.

No one with an interest in housing can – with a straight face – call Grant Shapps a success. He has failed utterly in his brief. Yes this is a man constantly hailed by Tories as an up-and-comer, and spoken of regularly as a future leader. And this is precisely the problem. Shapps has the kind of brief where the needs of the populous diverge significantly from the desires of his party grassroots.

Shapps spent his whole time in the Department for Communities and Local Government tickling the Tory sweet-spot. What Shapps was saying in a interview last week was not aimed at a housing audience. Little that he’s done in the brief has been about raising the profile of housing, but all of it has been about raising the profile of Grant Shapps particularly within the Conservative Party. His failure to do anything other than greatly exacerbate the housing crisis is simply not considered as significant as the symbolism of bringing back Thatcher’s favourite policy (though with far less success and take up) and bashing social tenants and providers.

Grant Shapps was never the minister for housing. He has only ever been the Minister for the future prospects of Grant Shapps. He’s clearly succeeded in that job just as magnificently as he has failed in housing. I can only hope his replacement is an unambitious technocrat. Housing desperately needs someone who knows what they are doing and knows that what they should be doing is building more bloody houses.

I called this post Grant Shapps and the problem with politics. The problem is wider than just Shapps or his party. Labour were not quite as bad, but we were far, far, far from perfect. Our approach to the housing brief was different, but equally affected by internal politics.

We treated the role of Housing Minister as an audition slot just as much as Grant Shapps did, but in a different way. It was a ministry where a junior politician on their way up could prove that they are a safe pair of hands. This meant proving that they wouldn’t listen to the grassroots. Social housing is a huge issue for Labour members, but was unloved by New Labour. Until the very end of our time in Government, this was a role to prove your strength to Party leaders by not pleasing the grassroots. I get a strong sense from both Ed Miliband and Jack Dromey that this is no longer the case. I hope that remains so when we get back into government.

So Shapps is now Conservative Party Chairman. Well that works for me. His ambition will perhaps work better for the Tories there, but actually, I suspect his desire to lead the Tories to and from the right will do them little good in the country at large. I look forward to his being as much a success in getting the Tory Party ready for the next election as he has had in solving the housing crisis.

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