Ed Miliband and the paradox of party reform

In order to open up their parties, leaders end up on relying on centralising devices.

Ed Miliband's proposal to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet raises some interesting questions about the challenges of opposition and political reform in general - interesting, that is, to people who are interested in that sort if thing. (Civilians with better things to think about on a sunny Friday in June, look away now.)

It is surely the right thing to do. Miliband needs to assert authority, not least because of the inelegant shape of his own electoral mandate. He wasn't the first choice of a majority of Labour MPs or the members, but he is the leader as legitimately installed under the party's (arcane) process. He doesn't need a rolling load of ballots that are irrelevant to non-Labour voters, distract MPs and generate chatter about competing mandates. Hence resistance also to the idea of a directly elected party chair. He is the boss; he should appoint his team.

One of many debilitating features of the Blair-Brown feud and then the abortive coups once Brown was in power was the decline in respect for the office of party leader; old-fashioned discipline. Ed needs to get that back.

Of course, curbing internal democracy never looks great. It is particularly hazardous for Miliband if it starts to feed into a sense of obsessive top-down management. That has dangerous resonance when he needs to rebut a "son of Brown" notion doing the rounds. (The charge being that, like his predecessor, the new leader is too cautious, too focused on tactical positioning and wedded to the techniques of command-and-control.)

It is also worth remembering that the current shadow cabinet mostly came into Labour politics as Neil Kinnock was fighting a battle to make the party electable, which meant very heavy-handed purges from the centre. I don't for a moment think the situation is equivalent, but I do suspect - and shadow cabinet members have told me - that the scars of that era have left the Labour high command wary of devolving too much power to the party periphery.

But there lies a paradox of opposition. The leader has to demonstrate that he is changing the party, which requires signalling openness to new ideas and willingness to promote fresh faces. But inertia is always a powerful force, so the leader must often impose change from the centre. David Cameron struggled with this problem. He recognised the importance of changing the party's image through candidate selection, but his clumsy attempts to impose an "A-List" backfired. Local associations rebelled and the plan had to be watered down. Instead of proving Tory modernity, the A-List approach revealed how resistant the party was to change. Miliband will also have to impose his will on candidate selection - all leaders do - but he'll be reluctant to start a round of local squabbles about golden boys and girls "parachuting" in.

There is trouble brewing on this front. Miliband is attracted to the idea of opening up party structures to draw in involvement from community activists who might be sympathetic to Labour but are not die-hard members. The ultimate goal should be to make the local Labour party a place that people turn to if they have concerns about local issues and want to engage in ground-level politics; not a place that where only very angry people go to rant about the Gaza blockade (I caricature crudely, sorry).

The problem is that any attempt to change the profile of local Labour parties and candidate selection in particular quickly turns into a conversation about building a new membership base, which is - in Labour terms - the age-old aspiration of those who would like to dilute the influence of theunions.

It is a fight worth having. A Labour MP who knows Ed Miliband's thinking on these matters put it to me well the other day when he said: "In opposition, what you do with the party becomes a proxy for what you would do with the public realm." In other words, since you don't have the power to change the country, prove that you mean business by changing the party. And there's no doubt it needs changing - otherwise it wouldn't have been evicted from office.

I suspect that if Cameron had gone about things differently and successfully reformed local Conservative Associations, he would be in a much stronger position now. He should have turned them into vigorous agents of social action - embassies for his "Big Society" instead of places where you have to swear an oath of loathing for the European Union before crossing the threshold. As things stand, Cameron is still caught between the competing needs to placate his right wing and prove to the country that the Tories are a moderate, socially conscientious party. His modernisation project stalled in the centre.

No doubt Miliband has studied that example carefully. At least, I hope he has.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.