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The desperate quest for a lie-in

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

“Have you heard of the Fibonacci sequence?”

“The Fibowhat?”

“The Fibonacci sequence. According to which everything in nature has a ratio of 1.61.”

It is 5.37am and baby Moe has been howling for an hour. Daylight is creeping around the edge of the curtains and we are getting ever closer to the agonising point at which we will definitely not get back to sleep before Moe’s elder brother, Larry, wakes up. For some reason, Curly has chosen this moment to try to explain a “concept” of science. Science is not my strong suit and particularly not when it is communicated to me at a senseless hour of the morning by Curly, who invariably doesn’t know what he is talking about, either.

“Isn’t a ratio supposed to have two numbers in it, like 1:4?”

“Fibonacci explains everything, from ears, to snails, to artichokes.”

“Now you’re trying to explain artichokes?” These mad ramblings are a symptom of our sleep-deprived delirium. For the past two months, the nights have been getting gradually worse. When we first brought Moe home, he seemed quite the model baby. I was sure he would be sleeping through the night in record time. But as if to punish me for my smugness, after six months his progress went into rapid reverse. Currently he is waking up every hour from 11pm onwards, every night. I read somewhere that the Japanese “broke” their prisoners during the Second World War by using a very similar approach.

At first, I tried to encourage him to settle himself. When that failed – and as I got more and more exhausted – consistency went out of the window. I have been alternately feeding him, patting him, singing to him, dosing him up with Calpol, putting in my earplugs and trying to ignore him, bringing him into our bed and generally hopping up and down like a grasshopper on Red Bull all night long. Needless to say, this frenetic activity has only made him worse.

Ah! Sweet relief! The crying stops. My throbbing head is bathed in blissful, soothing silence. It’s 6.06am – nearly a full hour before Larry will come thundering down the corridor baying for porridge. I close my eyes and slip into an uneasy dream: green and purple cartoon babies spin at me out of a dark sky, their mouths wide and their tonsils vibrating. They form a cacophonous, whirling spiral, like an ear, a snail or an artichoke . . .

“Mummy!” A voice yanks me back from the deep. I wrench open my eyes to find Larry peering at me, only inches from my face. “Wake up! It’s morning time!”

I sigh. I moan. I shove Curly repeatedly. “Please! Babe! You’ve got to get up! I really, really, really need a lie-in!” He pulls the duvet over his head.

“Don’t worry, Mummy, I’ll get you one.” Larry scampers back to his bedroom and returns with Lionel, his stuffed toy lion. I look at him in confusion. “Here you are!” he exclaims, looking pleased with himself. “You said you needed a lion.”

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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.