Labour will want to keep its Trident options open

A half-hearted commitment to renewal would make an easy concession to Lib Dems in future coailtion talks.

As with so many policies, Labour’s official position on whether or not it is worth funding a like-for-like replacement for the Trident submarine-based nuclear missile system is under review. More specifically, the view is that the party supports Britain having a nuclear deterrent. (Of course it does. The party isn’t about to revisit early 80s-style unilateral disarmament.) But the question of whether or not that requires having big Cold War-design submarines lurking in the seas ready to retaliate against the Soviets remains undecided.

So it is naturally a matter of interest when Des Browne, a former Labour defence secretary, co-authors an article in the Telegraph suggesting Trident may have had its day; not least because he championed the opposite view in government.

At the moment, on the government side, the matter is also subject to a review, headed by Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The very existence of that process is held up by Lib Dems as a mini-policy triumph, effectively thwarting the Tories’ hopes of prompt Trident renewal in this parliament. Scrapping the system is one of those totem Lib Dem policies in which activists take an especially vigorous interest even if the public is largely uninterested.

Labour, meanwhile, are ambivalent. There is still a whiff of CND around the party, but there is also a residual fear from the macho New Labour era of looking like a bunch of weak-kneed lefty pacifists. The Browne position is eminently reasonable: if there is a workable, cheaper alternative that retains some nuclear deterrent capacity, it would be perverse for a cash-strapped government not to take it.

That isn’t to say Labour is ready to adopt such a position. But it is worth noting that a final decision isn’t due before 2016 and it certainly won’t be taken this side of an election. That leaves Labour with the option of a manifesto pledge keeping all Trident options open. It probably hasn’t escaped the leadership’s notice that a vague, half-hearted commitment to Trident would also make an easy concession in the event of coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems in a hung parliament – a concession the Tories could not make.

A Trident submarine makes its way out from Faslane Naval base in Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.