PMQs review: Miliband puts Cameron on the back foot

Cameron looked evasive as he responded to Miliband's call for a limit on MPs' outside earnings with a reheated attack on the unions.

After last week's mauling, Ed Miliband arrived well-armed at today's PMQs. He swiftly challenged David Cameron to say whether he would accept his proposal of a £5,000 cap on all party donations (as revealed on The Staggers this morning) and of new limits on MPs' outside earnings. Cameron responded by rejecting a £5,000 cap on the grounds that it would imply "a massive amount of taxpayer support", a challenge Miliband will have to confront (some will argue that parties should simply cut their costs), but his answer on second jobs was far weaker.

In a proposal not included in his speech yesterday (he wisely held some ammunition back), Miliband asked the PM whether he agreed that "MPs should not be able to take on new paid directorships and consultancies". Cameron responded with a tokenistic attack on the unions that looked like a fairly obvious attempt to change the subject. Miliband had the confidence of a man certain that, on this issue, the public are on his side. It was only later in the session, in response to a question from Labour MP Phil Wilson, that Cameron offered a principled defence on second jobs, arguing that parliament benefits from figures such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett who have such interests.

After Miliband's speech yesterday, his claim that the Labour leader "doesn't want to talk about the trade unions stitching up Parliamentary selections" no longer rings true. Miliband also made it clear that he will use the Tories' opposition to a cap on donatiosn to frame them as the party of "big money", pointing out that the Conservatives had received £25m in funding from hedge funds who in turn received a tax cut of £145m in the Budget. 

As an aside, it is worth noting a furore at the start of the session when Cameron wrongly described Andy Murray as the "first British player" to win Wimbledon for 77 years (forgetting Virginia Wade). With Labour MPs crying Wade's name, Miliband smartly took the opportunity to correct his error as soon as he stood up. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London yesterday. 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.