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 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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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