Paul Krugman said Labour was "weak". Source: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan interviews Paul Krugman: Labour is "weak" in its opposition to cuts

The Nobel economist is scathing in his criticism of the two Eds.

In person, Paul Krugman is short, shy and quiet. But the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist isn’t afraid to hurl verbal hand grenades at his opponents – as I discovered to my amusement when I caught up with him on a visit to London this past week.

Krugman, who was in town to plug his new book End This Depression Now!, struggled to find anything positive to say about the EU’s leaders, President Barack Obama or the Israeli government. But it was the Princeton University professor’s comments about the Labour Party that stood out for me.

He was scathingly critical of Labour’s “weak” opposition to the Conservative-led coalition’s spending cuts. “Certainly, economically, they’re too cautious,” he said, dismissing the party’s plan to halve the deficit over four years.

His comments will make uneasy reading for the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, who are petrified of being tagged as “deficit deniers” by their right-wing critics. Under pressure from the Blairites inside the party, they have been trying to find the right balance between opposing the coalition’s austerity measures in the short run and supporting deficit reduction and cuts in the long run.

Krugman seemed to have little sympathy for them: Labour’s position on austerity, he told me, “has been a kind of ‘We’re like them but only less so’. And it does come across as fairly weak.” He continued: “It does seem odd that when you ask me: ‘Where is the really effective intellectual opposition coming from?’, it seems to be think-tank people and journalists. The opposition is Martin Wolf [of the Financial Times], Jonathan Portes [of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research], Simon Wren-Lewis [of Oxford University], David Blanchflower [of the New Statesman] and me.”

That, he said, is a “sad commentary” on the state of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

To add insult to injury, the Nobel laureate had high praise and much sympathy for Miliband’s predecessor, the much-maligned Gordon Brown. “He has been treated unfairly by history,” he said. “Yes, [Brown] made mistakes, but he is a much better guy than his current reputation suggests.”

I asked Krugman if he stood by his now-famous October 2008 description of the former prime minister as the leader who “saved the world financial system”. The economist nodded furiously. “Yes, he took the lead on the financial rescue which did save the world,” he told me. Without [Brown’s leadership], things would have been much, much worse. He was a smart guy.”

Krugman, a long-standing critic of the European single currency, was also keen to remind me how it was Brown who, as chancellor of the exchequer during the late 1990s, “kept Britain out of the euro. It would be a catastrophe here if Britain were in the euro.”

My full interview with the professor will appear in the New Statesman later this year.

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.