Cut, cut, cut: Mehdi Hasan reports on Alistair Darling v Greg Barker

The inconvenient truth is that Labour also wanted to cut more than Margaret Thatcher.

Shadow cabinet ministers and Labour-supporting bloggers alike have become excited by this quote [below] from the Tory minister Greg Barker, speaking in front of an American audience:

We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of.

He's right. But the Labour response is, ahem, odd. Angela Eagle, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, says:

Greg Barker has let the cat out the bag about the ideological agenda behind this Tory-led government's deep cuts to public services.

Hmm. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The inconvenient truth is that Labour, in the so-called Darling plan for deficit reduction, had also planned to go beyond Thatcher, too -- and were equally keen to "let the cat out of the bag".

Here's the relevant quote from the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, in an interview with the BBC's Nick Robinson in March 2010:

Robinson: "The Treasury's own figures suggest deeper, tougher than Thatcher's -- do you accept that?"

Darling: "They will be deeper and tougher -- where we make the precise comparison, I think, is secondary to an acknowledgement that these reductions will be tough."

That's why the Darling plan was such a bad plan. Halving the deficit over four years is a political decision on a political timetable; it has nothing to do with economics. I can't help but agree with Polly Toynbee, who wrote in her Guardian column on Saturday:

Labour should seize this moment. Increasingly trapped inside Alistair Darling's straitjacket, Labour should embark on a new economic direction. The FT quite fairly analysed the figures: the difference between Labour and coalition deficit reduction plans is just £24bn by 2014. Ed Balls's claim that cutting half as much is "a massive difference" is only true if he offers a route map to explain what tax rises and what growth formulae deliver the same deficit reduction as would Tory cuts. Both Eds sound uncomfortable because sticking to the Darling plan means more painful cuts than they can admit. The argument that they are not in power so don't need a complete budget may be tactically correct, but it doesn't work as a public statement. Labour can only take a commanding lead over the next austerity months by offering a more convincing economic alternative.

Over to you, Mr Balls . . .

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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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.