Labour's tougher line on bonuses

Party steps up the rhetoric but will it win back voters?

From the Labour conference

Alistair Darling's speech this afternoon was another example of the harsher line Labour ministers have taken on bank bonuses at the conference.

He promised that the new "clawback" system planned by the government would end the "reckless culture that puts short-term profits over long-term success". He also said: "It will mean an end to automatic bank bonuses year after year. It will mean an end to immediate payouts for top management."

But will it help lift Labour's dismal poll ratings? Today's ComRes poll for the Independent put the party level with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent, with the Tories on 38 per cent. Even allowing for the Lib Dems' standard post-conference bounce this is a remarkably low level of support.

Labour's best hope probably does lie in a populist stance on bonuses and extravagant salaries, with more measures such as the popular 50p income-tax rate. The test will be whether the party offers sufficiently distinct policies from the Tories.

I'd expect David Cameron and George Osborne to promise similarly tough action on bonuses in Manchester next week. The election success of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, who won by tacking to the left on bonuses and pay, is likely to concentrate Conservative minds.

I'm off to hear Ed Miliband in conversation with Steve Richards this afternoon, but it's his brother who's been garnering favourable headlines today.

The ComRes poll I mentioned earlier found that Labour would perform better at the next election under David Miliband than any other alternative leader, with the exception of Jack Straw. Under either of the two, Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament, opening the way for a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Miliband is certainly enjoying a better conference than last year. His address at last night's New Statesman party was confident, amusing and self-deprecating. He made light of the 2008 "banana incident" by quipping about the multiple photo opportunities this year's crop of fresh fruit stalls provides.

But those who suggest Miliband represents Labour's future forget that the trade unions continue to hold a third of the votes in Labour's electoral college. Many trade unionists regard the Foreign Secretary as little better than a Tory.

There's been less discussion of Straw's impressive performance in the poll, although in the past he's been spoken of as a possible caretaker leader. If Labour's defeat next year is as severe as some predict, its younger figures may wish to keep their powder dry until the party has regained ground.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.