Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Tories will get burnt fighting fire with fire (Times)

Daniel Finkelstein says that negative campaigning could damage David Cameron's image with the voters. The media focus on the Tories is an opportunity, not a threat.

2. Can anyone explain what the Conservative Party stands for? (Daily Telegraph)

Simon Heffer is not impressed with the way Cameron has moved power of decision-making in the party to the centre. In the absence of the old, core right-wing policies, the Tories lack clarity and direction, and are haemorrhaging support to fringe parties.

3. Bashing the rich won't work for Obama. But other rallying cries might (Guardian)

Obama is shrewd not to inveigh against the bankers, says Michael Tomasky. It would be better to make his cause by reminding America of the good things that the government does, and who higher taxes will help.

4. Passport to the truth in Dubai remains secret (Independent)

Whoever killed the Hamas official in Dubai is still playing an old, dirty war, says Robert Fisk. Now we must look beneath the propaganda for the truth.

5. How to walk the fiscal tightrope that lies before us (Financial Times)

Martin Wolf warns that huge fiscal tightening could tip much of the world back into recession. We must make it one of our priorities to let the private sector heal.

6. Power to the people -- and trust them too (Times)

James Purnell and Jim Murphy renew calls for a radical Labour manifesto. The party has lost faith in its communal roots, they say, but the public can be trusted to make the right decisions.

7. Why is our anti-war outrage muted at this Afghan folly? (Guardian)

Even doubters seem to be giving the military intervention one last chance, says John Kampfner, but there is little confidence it will succeed.

8. The year China showed its claws (Financial Times)

David Shambaugh looks at what lies behind Beijing's new assertiveness. Is it a case of true colours showing, a display of nationalism in the run-up to a change of leadership, or a sign of confidence gained from the vindication of the Chinese development model?

9. The Bank of England is right to hold its nerve (Independent)

Inflation is proving sticky, but it is premature to tighten monetary policy, says the main leader.

10. Hostage to hot air (Guardian)

Isabel Hilton says that the climate debate in the United States is mired in political weakness and infighting, setting the tone for unconstructive global negotiations.

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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.