I’ve got a soft spot for MPs

With this election being forced down our throats in an unprecedented number of ways - TV, Twitter, unusually open newspaper bias - we're finally seeing the truth about politicians. Just as we suspected, they are self-serving egoists, desperate for our approval.

Or they are rock stars, tapping in to the biggest audience politics has ever had in the UK. So that's the truth: politicians are the worst/most important people in the world (delete depending on your perspective).

I'd like to suggest a third way, based on my recent experiences (an appearance on Newsnight; topical radio shows; meeting a Tory candidate at a party; and a series of Twitter exchanges with MPs), which is that politicians are alarmingly normal. I've come to think that the truly dark secret about politicians is not that they're corrupt (some, sure, but not most), or power-crazed, or distanced from reality, but simply that they're more like the rest of us than we care to think.

Knowing that I was going to meet MPs on Newsnight, I was braced for slanging matches, giant egos and vulgar displays of public-money-wastage. But throughout, they did ordinary things such as worrying if their socks were the wrong colour and sending texts. I'm almost sure I saw one of them eat a sandwich. Much is made of the idea that MPs are "desperate to appear like ordinary people". What if they are ordinary people?

Yes, politicians might get into politics for reasons of self-advancement, but which of us doesn't do our job for that reason? Some jobs - nurses, the selfless people who make ice cream - bear more responsibility than others, but it seems odd to criticise people for being ambitious. Would you want people in charge of the country who weren't ? People who said things like "our economy will suffer hugely if we don't pump more money in straight away... but on the other hand, I've got a holiday booked at Center Parcs, so let's just see how it pans out"?

And yes, politicians may come across as desperate to court your favour, but who isn't? I recently took a call from my mobile phone company, which began with the stranger on the other end saying: "Hi there, Mark! So, what's on this evening - a few pints?" Perhaps, I thought, but I believe you've exceeded your remit as the company that charges me for my text messages.

Maybe it's the sense of kinship I got watching the frightened faces of the leaders about to embark on the gig-of-a-lifetime in the first debate, maybe it's the shaving cuts I saw on Chris Huhne's face, but I'm warming to politicians. They're doing a job that is virtually impossible and which few of us, if we're honest, could do much better.

Some of them may be corrupt or incompetent, but who would happily be judged by the worst people in their field? They are human beings who ride bikes, eat cereal and hope for the best. Let them have their moment. In three months we'll have gone back to not caring, anyway.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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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.