Eton college. Photo: GUY JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images
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Rent caps and angry economists, a partisan press, the SNP’s Old Etonian and cricket’s Sky high

Is the press more partisan than in previous elections? Yes, but that says more about politics than about the press.

The Tories and the asset-owners they represent, are clearly scared by Ed Miliband’s proposal to reintroduce rent controls. They draw comparisons with Vietnam, Venezuela and the Soviet Union, argue controls will make the housing crisis worse, and claim 98 per cent of economists oppose them.

I don’t care what economists think. Their opposition makes no sense to me except as a Pavlovian response to anyone questioning the post-1970s consensus that governments shouldn’t interfere with the market. Or perhaps as the response of people who already own homes and don’t favour anything that could bring down their ever-soaring value. The critics’ big fear is that, in a country where 11 million rent privately and a majority of voters back controls, Miliband’s policy will win the election.

If rents aren’t charged at market rates, we are told, landlords will take their properties off the market. What will happen then? Will landlords, many with buy-to-let mortgages to service, leave them empty, receiving zero rent rather than tolerating increases capped, as Miliband proposes, at the inflation rate? I don’t think so. They are surely more likely to sell or not enter the buy-to-let market in the first place, bringing property prices down and putting more homes within reach of first-time buyers. True, the private sector would have less incentive to build new homes or convert properties, but it doesn’t build or convert much now and new properties could be exempted from controls.

Britain had rent controls for most of the 20th century, particularly in the three decades after the Second World War. If they are so bad, why was the number of houses built much higher then than it has been in the post-1988 deregulated market? Germany still has controls, yet half its population finds private property to rent. Swedish municipalities set rents that landlords can vary by more than 5 per cent only if they make improvements. I haven’t heard that its housing crisis is worse than ours.

Miliband’s controls would be nothing like as strict and wide-ranging as Sweden’s, which apply to all tenancies, not just those existing. Under Labour, landlords would merely have to restrain rent rises during a three-year tenancy agreement.

This modest proposal certainly doesn’t deserve the vituperation it is getting in the press. That’s not my judgement: it’s from Tim Worstall, a senior fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, writing in Forbes magazine, house journal of the rich.

 

Normal service resumed

There’s vituperation on other subjects, too. “Miliband the land-grabber”, “Miliband will bring back uncontrolled migration” and “Union’s sinister hold over Miliband” are recent Mail headlines. (“Union” refers to the trade union Unite, not the Union between England and Scotland, though, in the Mail’s world-view, that’s also pretty sinister these days.) The Telegraph devotes an entire front page to an “exclusive letter... from 5,000 small business owners who helped to get the economy moving again”. To nobody’s surprise, they want the Tories to win. To only a little more surprise, the letter was written by Tory central office, which solicited the signatories, many of whom, as a brilliant analysis at sturdyblog.wordpress.com shows, don’t actually own businesses.

Is the press more partisan than in previous elections? Yes, but that says more about politics than about the press. We have returned to something resembling normal political divisions after more than 20 years in which the choice was between Thatcherism and Thatcherism-lite.

 

Once an Etonian...

Browsing through SNP election candidates, a name catches my eye: Danus Skene, chief of Clan Skene, whose 11th-century ancestor, according to legend, saved the king by killing a wolf with his sgian-dubh, a small knife traditionally worn with the kilt. Skene, now standing in Orkney and Shetland, was a contemporary of mine at Sussex University in the 1960s. I hardly knew him but can divulge one piece of information not shared with readers of the Clan Skene website or SNP election literature: he is an Old Etonian, reputedly the only one then at Sussex.

Seeing me standing bedraggled at a bus stop in pouring rain, he once stopped to give me a lift. Like a peasant offered victuals by the laird, I felt unable to refuse. Unfortunately, he seemed to have no interest in where I lived. He dropped me miles from my flat, still in pouring rain and with no bus stop in sight. Ever since, while relaxed about Greeks, I have been wary of Old Etonians bearing gifts.

 

Chinese cricket

The editors of the cricket annual Wisden, as I mentioned on the culture pages last week, believe the English ruling body should have kept the game on terrestrial TV rather than selling to the highest bidder. Many cricket journalists and ex-players agree. They are wrong. The alternative to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky is not the BBC but something like the Indian conglomerate Essel, which owns Zee TV. Essel threatens to sign top cricketers, presumably for eye-watering sums, to play in a new global Twenty20 league, aimed not only at audiences in established cricket-playing countries but also in North America, where there are huge communities of expatriates from the Indian subcontinent and even China. The International Cricket Council may well see off this scheme. But it would have no chance if the players weren’t already being paid handsomely from the sale of rights to Murdoch and others.

I don’t like this situation any more than Wisden’s editors do. But that is globalised capitalism for you.

 

Nil by eye

Back to the Daily Mail. Another front page screams: “Over 75? Sign here if you’re ready for death.” GPs, the paper reports, will ask older patients to agree to a “do not resuscitate” order if their health “suddenly deteriorates”. Happily, I still have five years to go. But I know my answer. Resuscitate but do not give me the Daily Mail to read. 

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Our new relationship with the EU may be a lot like the old one

For all the tough mood music, Theresa May has left room for concessions.

I'm sad and dismayed, but that's democracy for you.

The Mail is in a cheerier mood. "Freedom!" is their splash. "Dear EU, We're Leaving You" cheers the Express' while "Dear EU, it's time to go" is the Mirror's splash. "Dover & Out!" roars the Sun, who have projected those same words on the white cliffs of, you guessed it, Dover. "May Signs Us Out!" is the Metro's take.

"Brexit begins" is the i's more equivocal splash, "The eyes of history are watching" is the Times' take, while the Guardian opts for "Today Britain steps into the unknown".

The bigger story isn't the letter but its content, which leads the FT: "May signs historic Brexit letter and opens way for compromise". The government is finessing its red line on the competence of the European Court of Justice. (The word in Whitehall is that Theresa May hadn't grasped the importance of the ECJ as an arbitration mechanism after Brexit and for cross-border matters such as flights when she made her conference speech.)  And the PM has done a good job of not ruling out continuing payments to the European Union, her best path to the deal Britain needs.

A lot depends on what happens to the British economy between now and March 2019. The pound is down still further today but whether that's a minor eruption or the start of sustained losses will have significant consequences on how painful Britain's best path to the access we need to the single market - paying over the odds for the parts of membership that the British government wants to keep and swallowing that £50bn divorce bill - is doable or not.

For all the mood music emanating from May, she's quietly done a good job of clearing the obstacles to a deal where Britain controls its own immigration policy, continues to staff Europol and to participate in European-wide research, the bulk of our regulation is set by Brussels de facto if not de jure and we pay, say £250m a week into Brussels.

Our new relationship with the EU may be rather closer to our old one than we currently expect.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.