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Laurie Penny: Let’s exchange our Blitz mentality for the spirit of ’68

Invoking the Blitz implies that there are no alternatives to the coming austerity.

"The strikes won't beat us!" screamed the headline of last night's London Evening Standard, 70 years after the first German bombs fell on London. As hundreds of thousands of city workers wrestled on to heaving buses and trains, conservative press outlets were co-opting a patriotic narrative about British defiance in the face of adversity -- this time in the form of organised labour rather than imminent Nazi invasion. We stood up to the Kaiser, we stood up to Hitler, and by George we're going to stand up on a crowded bus to work!

We all know Londoners are tough, but summoning the spirit of the Blitz to counteract the quotidian annoyance of transport strikes is rather pushing the envelope. What next, sounding "The Last Post" when they run out of tuna baguettes in Pret A Manger? At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, there is really no equivalence, apart from the natty uniforms, between the Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Third Reich.

The strikers are inconveniencing ordinary Londoners not because they want to bring the country to its knees, but to take a stand over avoidable job losses and failures in Transport for London's safety programme. Union leaders say that near-disasters have occurred in the tunnels on several occasions this year, and that these may well have been caused by cutbacks in spending as part of the "failed experiment" on prospects for privatising London Underground. When you understand that this strike is about protecting workers and protecting commuters, the fury over a few difficult journeys in to work begins to look a little myopic.

Many of those interviewed by the Standard and other papers were furious about the possible effect on their own jobs, saying that an interrupted commute doesn't help when they are already worn out, overworked and living in fear of reduncancy and lost contracts. If these people had strong unions to go to themselves, if we lived in a culture of solidarity where workers were respected and protected on the job, they might be less likely to see other working people as the enemy when they stand up for their rights. It is entirely to the credit of the candidates for the Labour leadership that none of them has come out to condemn the strikes, despite being prompted to do so by the tabloids.

The Blitz spirit is also being appropriated to shore up the mythology of the looming cuts to public services. As a guest on Sky News tonight, I was privileged to watch a segment of the Murdoch station's Hard Times feature being filmed. Yet again, the story seemed to be all about how the British will cope: are we going to let the hard times get us down, or are we going to hold our heads high like true Englishmen and weather the storm uncomplainingly?

These are the wrong questions to pose. Yes, of course Londoners are tough, and living in this city at the moment does feel a little like being under siege: everyone is making do and struggling to hang on to a sense of normality, and there are mawkishly retro Blitz-era inspirational posters on the walls of every hipster house party I go to.

However, adopting a bunker mentality and vowing that disaffected workers or choppy economic waters "won't beat us" is the wrong attitude. Tthe British will survive the coming cuts -- we've survived a lot worse in the past. But that doesn't mean that we should accept them as inevitable. The country isn't being invaded by hostile forces totally outside government control. This regressive Budget has been imposed by the coalition forcibly, for reasons that are as much to do with ideology as economic necessity. Ordinary folk are being primed to make do and mend our way through the coming austerity, but there are alternatives.

This week the French are striking in their millions in protest at a proposed pensions cut that looks like peanuts, compared to the chunks due to be ripped out of the British welfare state next year. We might do well to heed the example of our former allies and exchange our bunker mentality for a little more spirit of '68.

Read Laurie Penny's weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.