The Lib Dem Tina myth

There were alternatives to this full-blown coalition of convenience with the Tories.

Do you remember Margaret Thatcher's slogan "There is no alternative" (aka "Tina")?

In recent days, I've clashed with Liberal Democrat MPs -- from the unconvincing and uncomfortable Simon Hughes to the pompous and prickly Greg Mulholland -- who have pushed the Tina line in order to defend the indefensible: their opportunistic coalition of convenience with Cameron's Conservatives. What else could we have done, bleat the Lib Dems? What was the alternative, they repeatedly ask?

As someone who was once a supporter and admirer of the Liberal Democrats, in the pre-Clegg era, let me refer to two of Clegg's more progressive predecessors. Here is Charles Kennedy in today's Observer:

I did not subscribe to the view that remaining in opposition ourselves, while extending responsible "confidence and supply" requirements to a minority Tory administration, was tantamount to a "do nothing" response. I felt that such a course of action would have enabled us to maintain a momentum in opposition, while Labour turned inwards.

Here is Paddy Ashdown on the Today programme last Tuesday, rubbishing the idea that a Labour/Lib Dem coalition would be unstable:

If this was a coalition made up of what you might call the panjandrum elements that you suggest, I would not be in favour of it. It is a coalition made up of Liberal Democrat and Labour in which we would dare the other elements if they wished to vote us down and, I can tell you, I can think of no political circumstances where that would happen.

Lib Dem apologists -- like the odious Greg Mulholland and various commenters on this blog -- can get as worked up and outraged as they like. But their own former leaders tell us that alternatives to this Tory/Lib Dem coalition were available: 1) a minority Conservative government relying on "supply and confidence" from the Liberal Democrats, and 2) a Lab-Lib minority coalition governing with the implicit support of the nationalists and others.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.