Clarke won’t go – thanks to Miliband

The Justice Secretary’s resignation wouldn’t have been good news for Labour in any case.

Kenneth Clarke has apologised following his comments on rape and rape sentencing yesterday. It wasn't the apology that saved his career, though – it was Ed Miliband.

The moment Miliband called for Clarke to be sacked, Clarke was safe. Sacking Clarke, or shifting him sideways, could have been a fillip for David Cameron. He would have looked swift and decisive. It would have also thrown a bone to the increasingly peeved right of his party, who think that the Tories are going soft on crime. Clarke's Europhilia and liberal tendencies do not make him popular with elements of his own party. Miliband's call for Clarke's head, however, took the option off the table for Cameron. If he had bowed to Miliband, he would have looked spineless.

Instead it looks as if Clarke will survive, if he continues to show suitable contrition. The irony, as my colleague George Eaton points out, is that many in the Labour Party don't want him to go – at least, not thinking from a policy point of view. Indeed, many in Labour seem to agree with Clarke's prison policies, as the New Statesman blogger Dan Hodges points out. Clarke is a liberal and competent minister who is attempting to turn the UK away from its over-reliance on prisons.

In terms of general policy, Clarke and Miliband are not disimilar when it comes to sentencing. Even when writing in the Sun – when a leader of the opposition should be at his or her blustering best on law and order – Miliband called for sentencing reform. He wrote:

Tougher prison sentences aren't always the answer. I think there are times when people get locked up and come out as harder criminals. Some non-violent offenders can be better punished with a tough community sentence, working off their debt to communities over months rather than getting off with a few days in jail.

Clarke is attempting to enact this type of policy. If he goes, the policy goes with him. What he said was stupid and betrayed a depressingly common prejudice that some rapes are not "serious" or violent, and he was right to apologise. But Miliband should not have called for him to go.

Even if Clarke were to be sacked and a more authoritarian justice secretary replaced him, Cameron would have looked weak briefly, but at what cost to Miliband and Labour? If Dominic Grieve had come in and started hammering criminals, there would have been no boost for Labour. No one – least of all Conservative politicians – loses votes for locking too many people up.

Yesterday was bad politics by Miliband. As Steve Richards points out in the Independent, a "leader of the opposition cannot call on ministerial resignations too often". With this in mind, Miliband has played his hand too early. Clarke won't go – and Miliband shouldn't want him to.

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.