Questions for Cameron over Lynton Crosby's links to alcohol and tobacco firms

After minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging are dropped from the Queen's Speech, Labour and Tory MPs point to the election chief's connections.

As notable as what is in today's Queen's Speech is what isn't. Despite repeated promises by ministers, the speech will not include a bill enshrining the government's commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid in law, nor, to the dismay of public heath campaigners, will there be any mention of minimum alcohol pricing or plain cigarette packaging. Only gay marriage survives as an emblem of Cameroon modernisation. 

Conservative MPs attribute this strategic shift to Lynton Crosby, the Tories' recently appointed campaign strategist, who speaks of scraping the "barnacles off the boat". By this, the hard-nosed Australian means dispensing with namby-pamby measures of little concern to the average voter (such as minimum  pricing and plain packaging) and focusing on people's core concerns: the economy, immigration, education and welfare reform.

But could Crosby's motives go beyond the merely political? As the Daily Mirror reports, the strategy chief's PR and lobbying firm Crosby Textor has long-standing links with the alcohol and tobacco industries. The company was on a retainer with British American Tobacco when cigarette companies fought the introduction of plain packaging by the Australian government and Crosby was federal director of the Liberal Party when it accepted large donations from the industry. Crosby Textor Fullbrook, the UK arm of the firm, has represented tobacco companies since the 1980s. 

The company's links with the alcohol industry are no less notable. The Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, which campaigned against minimum alcohol pricing, is listed as a client of Crosby Textor in a New South Wales register of lobbyists. The trade body includes multinational companies such as Diageo and Bacardi, currently lobbying against a price floor in the UK. 

With minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging both abandoned in quick succession, some in Westminster are beginning to smell a rat. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "Two public health policies have been dropped since Lynton Crosby arrived. David Cameron needs to come clean about whether Crosby had any involvement in these decisions. From the outside it looks very much like a right-wing lobbyist is dictating the coalition’s public health policy."

Downing Street has so far refused to say whether it was aware of Crosby's links to the alcohol and tobacco industries and what role he played in the decision to abandon the measures. But it isn't just Labour that is sounding the alarm. Sarah Wollaston, the independent-minded Conservative MP for Totnes, and a former GP, tweeted the Mirror's story with the accompanying words: "Why we desperately need an effective register of lobbyists.

Convenient, then, that a statutory register of lobbyists is another of the "barnacles" that Crosby has scraped off the boat. 

Lynton Crosby, who was recently appointed as the Conservatives' election campaign manager after running Boris Johnson's re-election campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.