Ed Miliband says Labour behaved like “squatters in power”

Labour leadership candidate says the party was too hesitant while in office.

In my Sunday Mirror column today I offer a gently mocking end-of-first-term assessment of the coalition government. I also quote something from Ed Miliband, the Labour leadership contender.

When I spoke to him he contrasted the confidence of David Cameron and his coalition partners with the hesitancy and lack of confidence of New Labour in power, in spite of their landslide victories. It's as if New Labour always felt like imposters, as if they had somehow tricked their way into government and didn't quite belong.

In some ways, they did trick their way in to power and behaved as such. The whole New Labour period can look more and more like an elaborate confidence trick, in retrospect.

By contrast, David Cameron and George Osborne -- especially the latter, who, though you may disagree with him, is a very impressive conviction politician (as is Ed Miliband, it so happens) -- behave in the way of Conservatives of old. They act as if theirs is the natural party of government and it is the historic duty and role of the Conservatives to rescue the country from the irresponsibility and misrule of lesser parties.

Call it noblesse oblige or, perhaps, the entitlement of privilege. Whatever you call it, Ed Miliband is bothered by how the Tories, using the Lib Dems as cover, can be so radical and so bold, even though they didn't win a majority at the election in May.

This is what Ed said to me:

It's very interesting what the coalition has done, a bit like George Bush in 2000. The coalition, like Bush, has won a very questionable mandate and yet they act like they own the place. The cuts [in public spending] David Cameron is making are going well beyond what he needed to do. He could have chosen a different course. He didn't. Yet when Labour wins an emphatic mandate we act sometimes like we are squatters in power. That has to change, surely?

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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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.