Opinion: emotional cleansing or ‘oops, your metaphor’s slipped’

Fluff over substance
I have a confession. While I have reservations about the current policy on social housing, that’s not what this piece is about. Andrew Stunell has written compellingly about our policy as has Dominic Curran.

All I’ll say is that successive Labour and Tory governments have failed abysmally over the last thirty years to invest in affordable housing. They’ve helped exacerbate social and community division, inflate housing price bubbles and distort the economy and our attitudes to wealth. Unwittingly or not, they are the architects of the ghetto. So if you’re interested in the substance of the argument, click away now. This article is all about the fluff.

A hall of metaphorical mirrors?
The fluff in question is the metaphor of ‘sociological cleansing’ that Labour has been using to  characterise the impact of the planned changes on housing benefit. In a Hall of Metaphorical Mirrors, it’s a particularly savage distorting glass. Chris Bryant seized it and used it to thump the Coalition on Tuesday in the House of Commons. However, Nick Clegg stamped on the metaphor with genuine passion and a cool-headed, factual rebuttal.

So that’s that over. Dust off hands. Job done.

Sticky, smeary stuff
Only not quite. Because the smear has stuck. In a war of words, the numbers lack traction. The only memorable phrase in the fight has been the “socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London”. Take a look at The Guardian or Independent. Depending on your allegiances, you’ll either cling to the metaphor or reject it. But it has defined the argument emotionally — towards or away from cleansing. For those of us who feel that Chris Bryant has indulged in (skillfully) grotesque hyperbole, it’s galling to have to admit that we’re operating in the emotional landscape that Labour and he have created.

Refreshing the parts other images cannot reach
Where Bryant has been particularly skillful is in refreshing an existing idea so that it has the maximum ‘stickiness’ In the same way that ‘Education, education, education’ was brilliant, because it refreshed the over-familiar phrase, “Location, location, location”, Bryant’s “sociologically cleansed” echoes “ethnically cleansed”. Huge ‘over-simplification warning’ here, but neurological research suggests that the way we form new memories most easily is by adapting existing neural patterns. If it’s a totally new idea, it’s harder for our brains to attach it to existing synaptic patterns. Totally old and it doesn’t register (As an aside, where Bryant’s been less successful is in lumping the two adjectival phrases together – it’s not as simple and memorable as one or other would have been standing alone).

Brainwashing – the boil wash
So can we remove Labour’s distorting lens? The more rational parts of us might suggest that Nick has already done the job with his “Does he really think it’s wrong for people who can’t afford to live privately in those areas that the state should subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000? I don’t think so.” But the more emotionally savvy parts of us know that this is not enough. We need our own metaphor, image or story that cleanses the cleansing image. This is not to substitute well-thought out policy for sound-bites; It is about redressing the media imbalance

To start the ball rolling – and these are illustrative, rather than definitive –  how about, “Affordable housing means affordable for all.”, “Housing that helps the homeless, not the landlords”, “Public housing, not private landlords”,  Now your turn. But keep it clean.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • How about “Tories good, Labour baaad”?

    The housing benefit system gives £20b a year to private landlords. That money could build 400,000 new council houses (£50k cost per house) a year on council owned land. Renting these out at reasonable rates could provide a 10% return on investment for the tax payer. It would also have the effect of reducing rents in the private rental market and increasing the money supply amongst the poor.

    You’ll have to ask your Tory overlords as to why they sold off the council houses in the first place.

  • Simon de Deney 27th Oct '10 - 5:31pm

    As I was trying to make clear up front, the argument is about the importance of presenting policies (not just housing) in ways that address emotional biases and not just through the reasonableness of our arguments. And, as I hoped I’d stressed in the paragraph at the end, these are examples to stimulate debate rather than emanating from existing policy.

    “Housing that helps the homeless, not the landlords” is not a policy in a bottle and is not what I’d necessarily suggest is the best way to characterise what will happen. However, given certain changes to the existing (I’d love to think ‘draft’) policy, you could argue that there might be more money available within a tightly constrained budget if we house people decently rather than perfectly.

    I’d love to see these figures fully worked out. Are they available?

  • The coalition plan to cut the benefit within twelve months of someone losing their job, even if they have been very active seeking another job. This means it will be better for people to move to the South East when they lose their jobs: rents will be higher which they can claim back, but more chance of getting re-employed.

    Better to claim higher housing benefits in London/SouthEast and get a job within a year, than claim modest housing benefit – and risk homelessness.

  • So for people facing the choice of moving or risking losing the benefit, perhaps you could call the coalition policy: COUNTDOWN CONUNDRUM

  • Social Cleansing is not a metaphor it’s a fact. In Westminster there are over four thousand households with rents above the benefit caps planned by the Blue and Orange Tories. Allegedly, Councillors are already phoning the tenants and telling them that they had better move now because they will be forced out in April.
    ‘The Impact of Housing Benefit Changes in London’ a report by London Councils based on a survey of Landlords showed that 82,000 London Households could be made homeless. Many of these people already work in London in low paid jobs. They will be forced to move far out of the capital. The Blue and Orange Tories appear to be quite sanguine about wealthier areas becoming rich ghettoes with people in low paid menial jobs travelling miles every day to get to them. How does that convince people that work pays? Especially, if you are punished by losing 10% of your housing benefit if you can’t find work, no matter how hard you have tried. This is social apartheid. The Blue and Orange Tories’ version of the Pass Laws.

  • My mother was ‘in service’ in her youth. Awful feeling this is what the rich want back! People will not have to move out of London, they can occupy the attics and cellars of their ‘masters’!! No wonder they do not want working class kids university educated.

  • Is the public really going to be outraged over the fact that some people will only be given £20,000 per year to stay in central London, instead of moving to the suburbs?

  • @ ad
    But where are all these houses in the suburbs and what about the infrastructure? The real problem is the ridiculous over inflated rents, this should be addressed. You are right on the public opinion on this, unfortunately the public have been softened up to think not only the sick and disabled are scroungers but also those on housing benefit. The landlords have been made rich by the DWP not housing benefit claimants., When this exodus takes place and the public see the strain on their own areas’ resources perhaps they will then recognise the folly.

  • How about:

    “Pay your fair share of taxes – Keep the roof over poor children’s heads!”

    Oops sorry. That’s what you consider to be unfair isn’t it?

  • Liberal Neil 27th Oct '10 - 8:46pm

    @MacK – That research shows that that number of households are currebtly renting properties above the planned level. It does not show how many of those households will be in a position to top up their rent from other income, or how many will be able to find alternative accommodation at a lower price. The idea that there is no property for rent within London within the suggested level is laughable. The people who are affected by these new rules are in exactly the same position as the vast majority of the population who would never expect to be able to live in very expensive parts of London.

    @Anne – if the level is set at 30% of market rents, then, by definition, 30% of properties for rent will be affordable within the suggested level. In any event, no-one will be forced to move, they can top up the Housing Benefit with their other income if they want to.

  • @Liberal Neil

    Yet London Councils are block booking accommodation in Hastings, Watford, Slough, Reading and Luton? What is going to happen to the infrastructure in these places?

  • Interesting article, Simon. I don’t have a slogan, but am reminded of a definiton I heard on a radio 4 panel show a little time ago which i’d like to paraphrase: ‘Countryside – the killing of a Conservative’ (you have to say it out loud to get it)

  • Richard Hill 28th Oct '10 - 10:28am

    At last , a bit of sanity returning to the housing market. I know that when I was claiming for housing the rent was not set by, is it affordable, is it reasonable. No! The landlords I knew set it by was how much the state would pay. This set up a distortion in the market which will be painful, for some, to rectify but it must be done. Paying a 100% benifit means there is no insentive to bother about the rent on the tenants part A nice idea but now we can see the problem with that.
    Throughout history people have had to move for economic reasons why should now be different. Next people will be telling me there will be no more boom and bust. Oh, I think somebody just tried that.
    Building ever more houses probably won’t solve the problem. It will probably just incorage immigrants, which does not bother me, but means the housing situation will be unlikely to change.

  • all I have to say 28th Oct '10 - 1:50pm

    All I’ll say is that successive Labour and Tory governments have failed abysmally over the last thirty years to invest in affordable housing.

    And now the Lib dem housing minister is to preside over a two-thirds cut. You need to learn to take responsibility.

  • @Simon de Deney

    It is obviously a lot more complicated than my rather simplistic 20b (£ spent on HB this year) / £50k (cost excluding land of a normal house) = 400,000 (Number of houses that could be built)

    Rent these out at an average £416 a month and the ROI would be 10% (exlcuding costs)

    The point I am trying to make is two fold (1) That the current model of paying private landlords has failed (2) That the amount of money tax payers spend on increasing the housing bubble and transfering wealth from the public to the financial and landlord classes has a negative overall effect on our quality of life.

    Good social housing – built by and owned by the government is the only solution I can see for a more prosperous country.

  • a sentence starts with “is it fair that……?”

    And an underdog group is about to get clobbered.
    Then the media latch on, then the public, who don’t see themselves yet as part of underdog group, all join in the baying for blood.
    You can only light the blue touch paper and retreat so many times.
    At some point you have to take responsibility for these policies and the devastation they are about to cause.

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