Johnson vs the London Irish: Mehdi Hasan on Boris's latest blunder

Memo to the Mayor: not all Irish people are members of Sinn Fein.

If you haven't read Jemima Khan's interviews with Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone in this week's New Statesman, you really should. The Livingstone interview hasn't attracted the best of headlines for the Labour candidate - "Ken Livingstone in Tory 'riddled with homosexuals' row" - but it is ludicrous to accuse Ken of being homophobic or bigoted on the basis of a single, ill-advised, badly-phrased comment. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that his Tory opponent Johnson has, in the past, referred to black people as "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles" and declared, in a discussion on 7/7, that "Islam is the problem".

Boris's interview with Jemima also contained a line that some might say was offensive to London's Irish community:

"I'll tell you what makes me angry - lefty crap," he thunders in response. Like? "Well, like spending £20,000 on a dinner at the Dorchester for Sinn Fein!"

Is the mayor referring to the annual St Patrick's Day Gala Dinner, the £150-per-ticket black tie event that ran between 2002 and 2008 and was, ahem, self-financing? The dinner that Boris cancelled in 2009 to save money despite the fact that it was, um, er, self-financing? The dinner that wasn't held "for Sinn Fein" but at the request, and for the sake, of the Irish community of Kilburn, Cricklewood and other parts of the capital?

Now, you can agree or disagree with the idea of a special, sponsored, annual dinner for London's Irish community but to dismiss it, out of hand, as "lefty crap" and "for Sinn Fein" isn't just wrong but offensive. Irish footballers, television stars, singers and politicians from across the spectrum attended the dinner, including, I'm told, Pauline McLynn (from Father Ted), Dermot O'Leary, Bob Geldof, the mayor of Dublin and the Irish ambassador to the UK.

As a spokesman for Ken Livingstone pointed out, when I mentioned the Boris line to him:

To call the annual, self-financing, St Patrick's Day dinner "lefty crap" is both profoundly ill-informed and also an attack on Irish Londoners and their contribution to this city. Irish Londoners came together to celebrate the part they play in the life of London - and Boris Johnson has slapped them in the face. He is out of touch and ignorant of the facts.

I'm not Irish but I am Muslim. I know what it's like to be casually stereotyped - not every British Muslim is an Islamist and not every person of Irish descent is a Provo. The mayor of this great and diverse city should know better.

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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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.