John McDonnell disputes Thangam Debbonnaire’s account of Labour’s much-criticised ‘two year rent deferral’ position

By Isaac Rose (@_isaacrose)


Last night in a Zoom call with Labour activists, former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell  stated that Labour’s position on renters’ rights during the COVID-19 crisis had been diluted under the new leadership. He rejected claims by current Shadow Housing Secretary Thangnam Debbonaire that the party’s current position was simply a continuation of previous policy (here, 24 mins in). Given Starmer was elected on the back of 10 pledges not to retreat from Corbyn’s policy agenda, McDonnell went on to register his ‘disappointment’ with the way policy had been moved.


At the weekend, Labour proposed that renters who fall into rent arrears as a result of loss of income during the crisis should be given two years to pay their landlord the money owed. We pointed out that this amounts to a situation where renters will face an effective rent-increase (ongoing rent plus payments towards arrears) for a two-year period. This would coincide with the worst recession in 300 years, pushing thousands in the private rented sector into a position where they would be unable to meet basic needs. 


Furthermore, the phrasing of the policy effectively foreclosed any discussion over whether landlords, mortgage lenders or the 1% should bear even a portion of the fall-out from the forthcoming arrears crisis. It individualises the problem and puts it onto the shoulders of tenants—all the while protecting the incomes of landlords.


McDonnell confirmed that the policy under the former leadership had been to suspend—i.e. cancel—rents, for those adversely affected by COVID-19, for the duration of the crisis period, referring viewers to the letter Corbyn wrote to Johnson on 18th March. This he pointed out was consistent with a broader policy platform by Labour to push for rent controls, which he noted had even been picked up and supported by Labour politicians outside of the left-wing of the party, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan.


McDonnell’s assertion that the previous leadership made a conscious decision to push for ‘suspension’ rather than ‘deferment’ (and that suspension was to be understood as a cancellation/ waiver rather than as a synonym for deferment) appears to be supported by tweets made by a member of LOTO at the time, Alex Nunns.


Before announcing the ‘two year deferral’ position, Debbonaire chose to meet with Ben Beadle, Chief Executive of the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) but not the organised renters movement. Following the backlash towards the position, Debbonaire met with ACORN on Tuesday and has promised ‘more announcements on rents’ in the coming weeks and a continued engagement with the organised renters movement.


Under Corbyn, renters came to rely upon Labour to be reflexively on their side and attuned to their needs. Under Starmer, the two year deferment position, announced on twitter with the phrase ‘Renters, Labour’s got your back!’, suggests at best ignorance towards the precarity with which renters live their lives. How many renters earning under the median wage were in the room when this policy was devised?


The landlord lobby—recently reconstituted under the banner of the NRLA—has sensed an opening, and is pushing their interests aggressively on the Labour leadership. Without countervailing pressure from the organised renters movement, Labour will continue to anger and alienate a significant part of their core vote.


Starmer must make amends. Renters and landlords have irreconcilable material interests. To stay neutral is to favour the powerful. If he wants renters votes at the next election he must make a concerted effort to show he is on our side—this could begin by ensuring the organised renters movement are consulted on policy before rather than after its announcement.


If Starmer fails to persuade renters he is on their side he should not be surprised when traditionally Labour voting renters following the same path as traditionally Labour voting Scots and traditionally Labour voting Brexit supporters.


Isaac Rose is a coordinator at GMHA.


14 May 2020