Monday, April 13, 2015

'Islington South & Finsbury Housing Hustings' at the Bentham Community Centre, 9th April 2015

With the General Election just 23 days away, it's time to meet the candidates. And so, to Bentham Community Centre. Tucked away off Essex Road, the place is far from the oak-panelled opulence of Westminster, coming with a clickety-clack wooden floor, a stage covered in donated children's toys and the sweet smell of marijuana wafting through the open windows. It's in this pleasantly community minded setting that those desperate for our vote were greeted out into a sea of sceptical faces.

The hustings, organised by Islington Private Tenants, focused on housing, an issue that we're told anyone looking to represent this constituency will have to learn a lot about awfully quickly. Islington South & Finsbury is ground zero for London's housing crisis: skyrocketing house prices have made the ownership a pipe dream for all but the richest inhabitants, leaving the rest of us easy prey for predatory landlords with a penchant for raising rents whenever possible.

Not only that; we have to deal with the ever-shrinking pool of social housing; having whatever social housing does exist falling apart; new build developments having a laughable amount of 'affordable' flats; corrupt officials squirrelling away funds; housing associations behaving more like property developers; and a spate of unlawful evictions.

Here we have those that want to represent our interests on the national stage. They are; the incumbent Emily Thornberry for Labour, Mark Lim for the Conservatives, Charlie Kiss for the Greens, Terry Stacy for the Lib Dems and Pete Muswell for UKIP. Surely this ambitious, aspirational gathering can present us with some solutions. If not, maybe they can at least point us in the right direction? If not even that, then maybe a smidge of hope that one day things will get a tiny bit better. R-right?

The candidates can roughly be separated into two groups. Half of them have spent their political careers elbow deep in the morass of housing issues, eventually realising, with faint exasperation, the limits of their powers. Emily Thornberry and Terry Stacey land firmly in this camp, with Charlie Kiss of the Greens shortly behind them. These three at least appear ed to have comprehensive first hand experience of what's going on in this constituency.

But, like King Canute in front of the oncoming tide, they're powerless in the face of national trends. It's as if their power is limited to political Whack-A-Mole, bashing individual problems as they poke their heads up. Theirs is a frustration borne of knowing precisely what the problems are, but being unable to address the root policies and economic trends that cause to them. That said, the three do make vaguely promising rumblings on repealing the bedroom tax, limiting rent increases to the rate of inflation and bolstering tenant's rights.

On the other side are Mark Lim and Pete Muswell, although to be fair to the Conservative candidate lumping him in with UKIP feels a bit unfair even to me. The obviously bored Lim, knowing his chances of winning this seat election are zero, plays it safe and keeps his mouth shut. As he gives us a dead-eyed stare you can imagine his hopes that, after suffering the slings and arrows of a doomed Islington campaign, Conservative Head Office may deign to put him forward for some cosy seat in the English shires.

But Lim looks positively statesmanlike in comparison to Pete Muswell of UKIP, an out and out moron. When he's not playing with his mobile phone he's spouting rambling, half-baked rhetoric with little or no relation to the question asked. Displaying open contempt for the audience from the moment he arrives (late, natch), he spins a xenophobic narrative that lays all of Islington's ills at the feet of the dreaded immigrant. Why, if we could only somehow cleanse our constituency of these freeloading outsiders our problems would be solved! Muswell's nadir comes when he describes rent controls as the gateway to a "Communist state", drawing titters from the entire room. He's later seen trying to hand out UKIP literature to the crowd, dismissively accusing anyone who turns him down of having a closed mind. 

Mixed in with the interesting questions are some passionate arguments and one or two genuinely moving stories, in particular Carol (@MeMyMouldandI), who's fighting a desperate battle against a moldy basement flat. After suffering a myriad of health problems, nothing appears to be done about her problems. Both Emily Thornberry and Terry Stacy appeared aware of her case, but the fact that the mould still grows is a sad indictment of bureaucratic incompetence in Islington's housing. 

Carol's case is a symptom of wider issues, but the winner of this election will at least have the power to beat back these symptoms. But, from what I gathered last night, no matter who wins, the root causes of Islington's myriad housing problems are likely to remain (and let's face it, probably worsen), for the foreseeable future.

So an interesting, but not particularly optimistic, night of politics.

Thanks to Islington Private Tenants for organising the night.

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