Sian Berry, the Green party’s mayoral candidate, is today announcing plans to create a “renters’ union” to represent the capital’s private sector tenants in disputes with their landlords.
Her press release promises:
“Nearly a million households – comprising nearly 2.3 million people – will be automatically represented by the London Renters Union if the Greens take City Hall”.
Under Berry’s plans the body would initially be supported by the Mayor’s office, possibly even being gifted space within City Hall, and would be funded through a People’s Housing Company recently proposed by Greens on the London Assembly.
But while Berry’s press release and briefing note talk extensively of a “union”, her proposed organisation wouldn’t tally with most people’s understanding of that term.
A union would normally be expected to be member-led, with senior posts and major actions discussed, voted on and agreed by the membership.
But there’s currently no central register of their names and addresses which would allow Berry’s “union” to solicit the views of the 2.3m private sector tenants it’s meant to represent or ask them to take part in a ballot on any action.
The resources needed to process applications or registrations from such a large group far exceed the “up to five staff” Berry’s own campaign tell me they’d allocate to the body, especially as those staff would presumably also be responsible for the lobbying and representation Berry envisages it carrying out.
Asked how they could possibly cope with the workload of enrolling more than 2 million unhappy renters, the Greens say: “Rather than closing its services to non-members, as conventional unions tend to do, we would effectively allow all renters to access them.”
That statement implies that at least some people would be registered members but doesn’t answer the central question of whether the proposed staffing levels would be sufficient.
Some might even think this publicly funded body which provides resources and help to those without any formal connection to it sounds far closer to a charity than it does a union.
There are already housing charities who campaign and lobby for renters’ rights many of which are, to quote Berry’s campaign, “under-resourced and under-supported”.
Yet instead of pledging to boost their funding, something the mayor could do, Berry’s policy would see public money handed over to a new, less experienced body with dubious accountability and questionable governance arrangements.
Pushed on the issue of how senior positions would be filled and who would be responsible for the money, Berry’s campaign told me: “As with any community-led initiative, Sian would set out a consultation paper with options and begin dialogue with potential stakeholders to find the form that best suits them.”
But this isn’t a “community-led initiative” – it’s a top-down policy announcement from someone wanting to head a £12bn regional government.
You can’t promise that “nearly a million households – comprising nearly 2.3 million people – will be automatically represented by the London Renters Union” and then, when asked how it’ll work, say ‘oh, we’ll look at all that later’.
Over the past 16 years current Green party AMs Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson have won the respect of two mayors, colleagues in other parties, the media and, most importantly, voters by offering credible, costed and properly thought out policies rather than pander to cheap populism.
When they’ve challenged Ken and Boris, Jenny and Darren – both of whom are stepping down from the Assembly in May – have always ensured that they did so from positions of strength and knowledge.
This approach means that, while not everyone agrees with them all of the time, all recognise the sincerity with which they advance their cause.
As Tory AM Andrew Boff put it during Wednesday’s City Hall budget debate when discussing Darren and Jenny’s proposed alternative budget:
“I think it’s wonderful, it is consistent, it is honest, it is bold, it is brave and it is wrong. But they have the honesty, they have the courage to present what they believe.”
Boris and Ken have also made similar remarks, and all three are only half serious in their mockery – Darren and Jenny have consistently impressed their opponents with their passion and discipline.
In the Mayoral and Assembly contest credibility with the wider electorate is key to securing votes but so far the 2016 Green campaign has been based on flimsy promises – such as the dreadfully under-researched City Airport pledge – which fall apart under the most casual of scrutiny.
Whatever the party’s next big idea is, they need to learn from their current Assembly cadre and ensure that it is more, not less, credible after they’ve answered legitimate questions about it.