Balls reveals that Miliband hasn't guaranteed his position

Shadow chancellor says he has not asked Miliband whether he will be in his post in 2015.

In an interview in today's Times (£), Ed Balls reveals that Ed Miliband has not guaranteed that he will be shadow chancellor at the next election. He tells the paper: "I’ve never asked him. It’s a bit arrogant thinking about what sort of job you do."

There is nothing unusual about this (leaders always give themselves maximum flexibility) but it will encourage speculation that Balls could be moved before 2015. His below-par response to the Autumn Statement, which he compared to a top footballer missing a penalty, has emboldened those in the party who believe Miliband was wrong to give him the job in the first place. One proposal doing the rounds is for Alistair Darling, fresh from leading the unionist camp to victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, to return as shadow chancellor in time for the election. Balls will still almost certainly remain in his post (the right decision, in my view) but it's no longer unthinkable that he could accept a different job.

Elsewhere in the interview, Balls suggests that economic volatility means Labour will hold back its major fiscal decisions until the year of the election. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."

With a Spending Review due to be held next year, George Osborne will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would stick to the Conservatives' spending plans for the opening years of the next parliament, as it did in 1997. Balls, one of the architects of the '97 pledge, is keen to keep this option open, but his words are an indication that he won't be making a decision anytime soon. With forecast borrowing revised up by £212bn since 2010, it's not hard to see why.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.