Mr Smith goes to . . . Jazz

The supper-club audience was enjoying a saxophone with a tiny Italian on the end of it. The instrument was jerking him from side to side like a boa constrictor. The pocket altoist was appearing with the British trumpeter Guy Barker. It was the first public workout for Barker's new line-up, a septet heavy on the horns (an album is due later this year). On a number called "Underdogs", the brass section raised its instruments like a firing squad. After the wind-tunnel turbulence blew itself out, you expected to find that the walls had fallen in, or at least that your fellow diners were peeling upturned pizza from their faces, like extras in a Laurel and Hardy film removing their starched shirt-fronts from their eyes.

Barker's horn was a chunky, art-deco piece finished in old gold. It looked like Flash Gordon's ray gun. The trumpeter himself, with his suit and floppy hair, could have passed for a new Labour MP. Television viewers would have seen him the previous evening, backing Sting.

Barker's saxophonist might have appeared to be grappling with a serpent, but the leader himself addressed the microphone stand with the insinuating manner of a snake-charmer. He finished a solo to reveal the lingering rosebud kiss of the trumpet's mouthpiece on his lips. Barker sniffed and wrinkled his nose like a cokehead, but these were the blameless facial exercises of the pro.

A generation of players before Barker were renowned for their complicated respiratory arrangements, which had as much to do with what went up their noses as what emerged from the embouchure of their mouths. To men such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, "blow" was a noun as well as a verb.

A few days after the Barker gig, Herbie Hancock, Davis's former pianist, was doing publicity for concert dates later this winter. In his new show, Hancock takes the stage trailing cables, like the electrified homunculi in the video of his ground-breaking hit "Rockit". His fascination with technical challenges gives the concert platform the air of a funky Frankenstein's lab. You wonder whether Hancock doesn't privately consider his Steinway a disappointingly unwieldy forerunner of the laptop.

The newspapers were reporting that Rick Parfitt of Status Quo had been heartbreakingly hospitalised with repetitive strain injury, after a career spent running the gamut of three chords. At least ten years Parfitt's senior, Hancock's recurring syndrome is not rigid fingers, but itchy feet. On the sleeve of his new CD, Future2Future, the veteran ivory-tickler is seen in what he claims is rainwear, but which looks like the sterile boiler suit of the pathologist or Silicon Valley tycoon. Like Barker, he represents a departure from the old ways.

I invite him to recall the weirdest gig he'd ever played, hoping for stories of hightailing it out of redneck bars with the night's takings in the slipper of a chanteuse. But to the technocrat, this does not compute. The good-natured Hancock prefers to accentuate the positive. "I enjoyed doing The Muppet Show," he says at last. "Miss Piggy, now there was a professional."

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.