Greece: apocalypse postponed?

The key question is whether Greece can retain the euro and reduce austerity.

After yesterday's Greek election it is clear that most of the country's voters want two things: for Greece to remain in the euro and for it to adopt a reduced pace of austerity. The key question today is whether these competing demands can be reconciled. All of the Greek parties, to varying degrees, are calling for an easing (or abandonment) of the bailout conditions, with both the victorious centre-right New Democracy and the third-placed centre-right PASOK demanding slower cuts, higher unemployment benefits and a reversal of the reduction in the minimum wage. They are also insistent that Greece must remain in the single currency (the exception being the communist KKE, which has called for the restoration of the drachma.)

The likelihood is that the country will now be led by a grand coalition of New Democracy-PASOK. Last night, PASOK insisted that it would not join a coalition without the presence of the left-wing Syriza, which finished second with 27 per cent of the vote, prompting some to raise the spectre of a third election. Syriza, which relishes the prospect of becoming the country's official opposition, has already ruled out joining any coalition. Who will broke the deadlock? Despite its reluctance to join a "bailout coalition" (seen as an act of electoral suicide), PASOK will almost certainly drop its insistence on the participation of Syriza and, at the very least, offer New Democracy "confidence and supply".

The question will then be whether the new government can extract more favourable terms from its EU creditors. There are some signs this morning that it may be able to do so. On the Today programme, German CDU politician Michael Fuchs suggested that Greece could be given more time to repay its debts. But at this stage, minor concessions will do little to alter Greece's fate. Germany must use the window of opportunity provided by the election to finally engage in fiscal stimulus and allow the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort. But so long as Merkel, the high priestess of austerity, remains wedded to her current course, the eurozone is destined for stagnation at best and collapse at worse.

New Democracy party leader, Antonis Samaras, smiles at supporters after his party came first in the country's general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.