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!

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.