The week with Peter Wilby

Desmond v Dacre redux, the clamour from Occupy LSX, questions of faith and university bingo.

Desmond v Dacre redux, the clamour from Occupy LSX, questions of faith and university bingo.

In a world of bewildering change, it is comforting to find the Mail and Express newspaper groups at war again, with Richard Desmond, owner of the latter, calling the Daily Mail's “editor", Ayatollah Paul Dacre, "a miserable fat git". The rivalry between the groups goes back to the 1920s, when Lord Beaverbrook, then the proprietor of the Express, said he would return to his native Canada and retire a failure "if I don't succeed in killing the Daily Mail".

However, soon after Desmond - who made much of his money from pornography - bought the Express group in 2000, a truce was negotiated. The Mail wouldn't call him a pornographer in return for the Express papers not mentioning the illegitimate son of the Mail's proprietor, Viscount Rothermere.

I was never sure what Desmond thought he got out of the deal. Everybody still calls him a pornographer and nobody cares about Rothermere's child, who was born long before he married. Only the Mail, which has many of the characteristics of a religious sect, would think illegitimacy (itself a quaint term) was of any importance. The truce is coming to an end and a contest that bears comparison with England v Australia in cricket and Tottenham v Arsenal in football may now resume.

I shall cheer for Desmond. His papers are, if this is possible, even more obnoxiously right-wing than the Ayatollah's. But at least they look so unstylish, uninteresting and generally mediocre that there's no chance of anybody reading them.

Little-tent politics

Two weeks ago, in this column, I suggested the protesters outside St Paul's would do better to work out a programme, join political parties, attend meetings and so on, instead of pitching tents. I now believe I was wrong. Why should they do such boring things? After all, none of our political leaders has a programme and most of them got where they are not by developing coherent ideas or doing the hard work of converting the masses to them, but by pitching their tents (metaphorically) among the think-tankers and lobbyists of central London. The occupiers may not have a plausible solution to our present crisis but nor, despite several weeks of joint cogitation, do the presidents and prime ministers of Europe.

Protesters are saying "yah-boo" to global capitalism just as the titans of global capitalism say "yah-boo" to anybody who wants to reduce their profits or cut their bonuses. The dismay of financiers and politicians across Europe at the Greek government's temerity in putting a "rescue" package (which essentially rescues bankers and bondholders) to a referendum says it all. They implicitly echo Margaret Thatcher's "There is no alternative". The Occupy movement tells them they must find an alternative, and echoes the slogan of the Latin Quarter in Paris in May 1968: "Be realistic - demand the impossible."

Beyond belief

One of my problems with religion is that so many of its adherents seem not to believe in it. Doesn't the Bible go on about giving up worldly possessions, not laying up for yourselves the treasures of this earth, and coming to want if you oppresseth the poor to increase your riches? The message is getting home to the St Paul's clerics and the Bishop of London that, in trying to clear out the protesters, first on dubious safety grounds (I don't think the Bible records any health and safety checks at the feeding of the 5,000) and then by straight legal action, they were somewhat out of touch with public opinion and expectation. But that shouldn't be the point, should it? Aren't their immortal souls supposed to be in peril if they flout the teachings of their God? Don't they risk eternal damnation? At least Muslim suicide bombers behave as if they actually believe that stuff about paradise and the waiting virgins.

All bets are off

University places are at present allocated by a form of spread betting. Students apply on the basis of predicted exam grades (only half of which turn out to be accurate); universities make offers on the basis of what grades they hope students will get; both sides then cross their fingers and hope it will come right on the night. Only very clever people could have invented something so foolish and irrational. It benefits public-school pupils because their teachers are more familiar with the complexities of the system.

Now, it is proposed, students should sit A-levels earlier so they can apply after the results. However, I doubt this will lead to more than a marginal improvement in the social balance at our top universities. The danger is that the change will reduce the pressure for positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged students, after generations of positive discrimination in the reverse direction.

Indie band

The Independent and the London Evening Standard, both owned by Evgeny Lebedev, are to share sport and business departments, which is increasingly common practice among papers under the same ownership. Couldn't the Independent, with its reputation for innovation, have done something different? Why not just merge the sport and business desks into one department? Just as sports journalists are fans writing for other fans, so business journalists write as fans of capitalism, which is why they were still praising Northern Rock a month before it crashed.

Peter Wilby was editor of the NS (1998-2005)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.