Blair does Miliband no favours

Former prime minister backs the coalition's NHS and education reforms.

Tony Blair used to joke: "This has been my worst week until the next one." But after Ed Miliband's worst week since he became Labour leader, Blair does Miliband few favours in his interview in today's Sun.

The former prime minister offers his clearest endorsement yet of the coalition's public service reforms and implies that Labour under Miliband is "pinned in its ideological past". Blair says: "I think some of the technical aspects of reform - competition in the NHS, putting the patient first, breaking up the traditional state school system in favour of academies and trust schools - these were things we started."

As Andy Burnham recently noted in the Times (£), Michael Gove's successful attempt to portray himself as the "torchbearer for new Labour's education reforms" is one of the reasons why his agenda has proceeded at breakneck pace. The endorsement of "The Master" himself (as several Tory cabinet ministers refer to Blair) will only further embolden the Education Secretary. When Blair declares, "I wanted to give to you full-on New Labour", some in the coalition will reply: we have.

Unlike Miliband, who memorably declared that the "The era of New Labour has passed", Blair insists, with messianic fervour, "the concept can't possibly be over because the concept isn't time related". Like Kim Il-sung, one senses, Blair intends to govern from beyond the (political) grave.

As before, Blair gives Miliband his "full support" but adds the rider that Labour will only win "if it fights from the centre", the implication being that Miliband has vacated that hallowed ground. All the same, it would be understandable if the former PM were frustrated at a man who declared that New Labour was dead but who conveniently borrows from the Blair playbook.

In a speech to business leaders in October, Miliband flooded his text with references to New Labour's support for wealth creation. In his speech on responsibility this week, he even quoted the man himself:

Tony Blair once said he wanted a country "where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation." This patriotism is all around us. We see it every day.

But if ever proof were needed that Blair sees Cameron, not Miliband, as his "heir", today's interview supplies it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.