Relaunch? What relaunch?

Cameron and Clegg failed to offer anything new as they fought back after Thursday's local election b

As relaunches go, this was anything but drastic. Following the hammering that both their parties got in the local elections on Thursday, David Cameron and Nick Clegg chose the suitably austere setting of a Basildon factory to reaffirm their mission, but they had little new to offer.


While the setting was a far cry from the (in)famous rose garden, the words were not. The pair said that the economy was in a far worse state “than anyone thought” when they took over, and that they would do “whatever it takes” to get it back on track.


Cameron reiterated that deficit reduction would continue to be the coalition’s “guiding task”. He used several phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to politics over the last two years. The nation’s credit card is “maxed out”; you can’t solve debt with more debt; welfare should reward people “who do the right thing”. All of which begs the question: what exactly has changed?


ITV’s Chris Ship was on hand to ask exactly that question.  Cameron said that they would focus on the things that matter the most. Heading the list was – you guessed it – the economy. He said that the main focus for him would be “what we can do to get our economy moving”. But while he acknowledged the problems with living standards and jobs, there were no new measures, no shift of focus on offer. Clegg added that the coalition would redouble its efforts to govern for the whole country after taking a beating in local elections in Scotland, Wales and the north.


That takes us to the crux of the issue: this wasn't about policy, it was an attempt to show that the coalition is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. Suffering in the polls and struggling to recover in the eyes of the public from George Osborne's toxic Budget, this was intended to show that the government is listening.


But it is hard to see how anyone could be reassured by today’s appearance. Blaming the recession of 2008 for all the problems of governance is starting to sound hollow in 2012. As my colleague George Eaton pointed out earlier today, the government’s commitment to deficit reduction above all else has in fact led to higher than expected borrowing. The two leaders did not even put a new spin on old ideas, let alone consider new ideas. Don’t hold your breath for an economic Plan B.

Desperate times desperate measures in Essex, 8th May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.