Who would benefit most from a Lib Dem meltdown?

The Tories are in second place in 39 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats. But Labour could still benefit most.

Yesterday's vote on tuition fees was the Liberal Democrats' Iraq moment, a profound breach of trust for which the party will pay dearly at the next election. In little more than eight months, the Lib Dems have fallen from 34 per cent in the polls to just 8 per cent, their lowest rating for 20 years. They are certain to lose votes and seats at the next election. But who would benefit most from a Lib Dem meltdown?

It is the Conservatives who stand to win the most seats off Nick Clegg's party. The Tories are currently in second place in 39 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, typically by a considerable margin. By contrast, Labour is in second place in just 16.

As UK Polling Report shows, while 13 of the Tories' top 50 target seats are Lib Dem-held, just six of Labour's are. A poll of marginals by the Conservative Party deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft in July suggested that the Tories can hope to win as many as 30 seats off the Lib Dems.

But Labour supporters can derive much comfort from the fact that a wave of Lib Dem defectors will allow them to win back dozens of seats from the Conservatives. As a Fabian Society analysis pointed out earlier this year, there are 25 seats that would swing back from the Conservatives to Labour if just one in five Lib Dem voters switched to the red team.

In addition, a defection of this size would allow Labour to win 15 seats off the Lib Dems, including all five gains that Clegg's party made at the last election – Norwich South, Bradford East, Brent Central, Burnley and Redcar. Encouragingly for Ed Miliband, a recent ComRes/Independent poll found that more than one in five people who voted for the Lib Dems say they would now vote Labour.

But the risk for Labour is that justifiable anger at the Lib Dems unwittingly allows the Tories to avoid the blame for unpopular decisions. As Ed Balls points out in his latest Tribune column:

The Prime Minister plays the global statesman – travelling around the world and hosting foreign leaders in Downing Street – but rarely allows himself to be dragged into domestic policy controversies. George Osborne is rarely seen in public defending his reckless gamble with the economy.

But week after week it is Lib Dem ministers like Danny Alexander and Vince Cable who find themselves in TV studios defending what are essentially Conservative policies in a predominantly Conservative government. The Lib Dems have willingly become David Cameron's human shields, haemorrhaging support in the process.

Unless Labour begins to develop a more coherent critique of the Conservatives, Cameron's party, not least under the redrawn constituency boundaries, could be in a strong position come the election.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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