Only pets win prizes

Observations on Westminster

In politics, as in so many walks of life, it takes only a few people to misbehave to spoil it for everyone. So have some sympathy for the rumpled backbencher whose presence generates little attention in Westminster or at home, whose majority has dwindled so far that it now resembles the share price of a British car manufacturer. Pity him, for the one event of the year meant to give him a whiff of glamour has been snatched away.

The annual House Magazine Parliamentary Awards are just like the Oscars, but with Margaret Beckett rather than Natalie Portman, and are a chance for our politicians to congratulate themselves. Voted for by MPs, the awards are usually an occasion on which backbenchers can exercise individual judgement without fear of the whips’ recriminations. But not this summer. No. This summer they’ve been naughty.

Gerry Murray, the magazine’s publisher, has written to MPs and peers to let them know the awards will not take place on their usual July date. It would, he told them, “be inappropriate to ask parliamentarians to consider candidates for the awards at this time, when the pressing matters of implementing reforms and electing a new Speaker take priority”. In other words, there will be no party until they all learn to behave.

Poor backbenchers. Now there is nothing to dream of when dealing with the hand-delivered missives from deranged constituents. Nothing to hang on for when they appear on local radio, defending some disastrous party policy that represents everything they went into politics to prevent. They know what awaits them at the election. This time next year they will have only the souvenirs of their working life: a chipped teacup stolen from the terrace, a never-to-be-updated entry in Who’s Who.

Still, they would be the first to accept that the awards cannot happen right now. To whom could parliament give a gong in this climate? Everything would have to go to Vince Cable, except perhaps a lifetime award for Chris Mullin as he retires. Anything else, and the public would storm Westminster. As each party desperately tries to outdo the others’ protestations of remorse and reform, Westminster is beginning to resemble Salem, its occupants crying out that the devil took over their bodies and then pointing to the member of their party currently unstable enough to shoulder their blame. MPs hope the crisis is temporary. Maybe it won’t even take that long for things to return to normal. Sure, the public clamours for change, but in a few months people will have forgotten all about it. Give that nice Mr Martin a peerage. He took one for the rest of us. The dim herd won’t notice.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the awards is that they have not been cancelled, merely postponed until the autumn. By then, the strange fever will have passed; parliament will be back in business and all the talk of radical reform quietly brushed back under the carpet. Our representatives can nominate those who acquitted themselves best in the expenses crisis; the ballgowns will come out, and the fun will continue. Unless, of course, we don’t forget at all. And we don’t let them forget.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

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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.