Satisfaction from coming second

The results in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield get better and better the more Mark Pack thinks about

So, another day, another pair of Parliamentary by-elections over, and – courtesy of Ealing Southall in particular - an extra large supply of campaign anecdotes to add to my store. But what does it all mean?

Clearly Labour members and supporters will like having held both seats, but with their majorities halved in both the results rather puncture the Brown Bounce hyperbole about him taking back all the support Labour lost to the Liberal Democrats.

The fall in Labour’s support in Ealing Southall is particularly interesting, because this is just the sort of seat where the Liberal Democrats have performed poorly in the past, but got a respectable second in 2005 fuelled largely by the Iraq war. In other words, it is just the sort of seat where a new look Gordon Brown Labour party, hoping to leave its troubles behind, should be making up previously lost ground.

That the Liberal Democrats actually made further advances is a promising sign for the next general election being one of more gains from Labour rather than one of just trying to cling on to what we’ve already got.

Beginning to pick over the electoral figures, it looks as if we did very well in the Ealing part of the constituency and really rather less so in Southall. This split shows that the party still has work to do in order to build up levels of support amongst particular communities, though the party’s overall ability to win votes from ethnic minority communities has been transformed compared with – for example – the 2000 by-election in Tottenham.

I worked on that campaign, and am struck by the pleasing contrast with how the Ealing campaign had a much more diverse team of helpers, evidenced from the simplest signs in photographs of people helping in HQ through to the practical benefits of being able to produce translations in a wide-range of languages.

Judging the party’s mode from messages received by email at the Ealing and national party HQs so far today, members and supporters are pretty cheerful about the results. Indeed, as the dust has started to settle as today has worn on, and I’ve started catching up on sleep and media coverage, the results in Ealing and Sedgefield are steadily getting (even) better in my mind as it is becoming clear that the brace of second places – and in particular the flop of the much-hyped Tory Ealing Southall campaign – is causing large scale ructions in the Conservative party. Conservative Home [] is a fun read at the moment!

Aside from the internal ructions, the Conservatives are likely to have also done themselves severe damage with the media, for once again they suckered some journalists into reporting a Labour – Lib Dem contest as if it was really a Labour – Tory one. With a bit of luck, a few more journalists will finally be rather more wise to the “pssst, want some dodgy postal vote figures?” type wheezes, especially as this was a repeat of what was done in Leicester South – where again there were reports of the postal votes showing the Lib Dems out of it, but when the votes were counted Tories finished third.

All in all then, whilst winning is always best, the results in Sedgefield and Ealing are cause for satisfaction amongst Liberal Democrats. Two good sets of swings, two good second places and two other parties whose results raise serious questions about their future.

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.