The Tories are the big winners from today

Tory gains and a No vote mean this is one of Cameron’s best days since becoming PM.

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," wrote George Orwell. Engrossed in the Lib Dem massacre and the SNP triumph, few have noticed one obvious truth: the Tories are the big winners from today.

As I write, the Conservatives have made a net gain of 37 seats and their share of the vote has held up – a truly remarkable result. The Tories had been predicted to lose 500-1,000 seats. In an interview outside Conservative Central Office, David Cameron has just promised that there will be "no celebrating, no congratulations" after the AV result tonight.

Yet the Tories have much to celebrate today. Despite the unpopularity of the (Tory-dominated) government's austerity measures and its NHS reforms, they have not suffered at the polls. Nay, they have gained. As the left always warned, the Lib Dems have acted as their human shields.

Until the final weeks of the referendum campaign, a No vote was never inevitable. Most polls before the campaign proper showed the two sides neck and neck. The turning point came when David Cameron, who initially planned to lie low during the referendum period, put himself at the centre of the No campaign. As Nick Clegg remarked, the Tory leader "threw the kitchen sink" at the referendum after realising the considerable damage that a Yes vote would do to his leadership.

Had the Yes campaign won, Cameron would have been branded a serial loser, the man who failed to win a majority against as unpopular a prime minister as Gordon Brown, who was then forced to offer a referendum on AV to the Lib Dems and who sacrificed first-past-the-post as a result. But today Cameron will enjoy one of his best days since becoming Prime Minister.

There is now a far greater chance of a Tory majority in 2015. The prospect of an emboldened Conservative Party fighting the next election under first-past-the-post, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its favour, is not a happy one for Labour. Those who assume that Labour will return to power on a wave of anti-cuts discontent could not be more wrong. For Ed Miliband, the really hard work starts now.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.