Miliband's Wonga tax is another trap for the Tories

Should Cameron's party oppose the levy, Labour will accuse it of again siding with predatory companies against struggling consumers.

After doing battle with the energy companies, Ed Miliband is taking on Wonga and co. The Labour leader will announce today that his party would impose a new levy on the profits of payday loan companies (call it the "Wonga tax") and use the money raised to double the public funds (currently £13m) available to credit unions and other low-cost lenders. The plan was first mooted in August shortly after Justin Welby vowed to put Wonga "out of existence" by supporting non-profit lenders, which charge a maximum interest rate of 26%. Labour says that it is currently "consulting on the rate and details of our addition to the levy" but I'm told by a party source that the rate is likely to be around 10%. 

Miliband will also announce that Stella Creasy, who was overlooked in the shadow cabinet reshuffle, will be given "special responsibility" for leading the party's campaign against abuses by payday lenders. On a visit to Peckham today with Creasy, last week appointed as shadow minister for competition and consumer affairs, he will visit the office of a credit union and meet some of those who have suffered at the hands of high-cost lenders. He will say:

The cost of living crisis afflicting millions of Britain’s families is so bad that it is creating a personal debt crisis too. The prices families have to pay keep on rising faster and faster than the wages they are paid. And, as a result, the market in payday lending has doubled in just four years. Almost a third of the payday loans taken out in Britain at the moment are to cover the cost of people’s gas and electricity bills.

For too many families the end of the month is now their own personal credit crunch. A One Nation Labour Government would deal with the causes of the cost of living crisis. But it would also act to help prevent people falling into unpayable debt with radical reform of the payday lending market. We would cap the cost of credit, halt the spread of payday lenders on our high streets and force them to fund the credit unions that can offer a real alternative for people in desperate need.

We must protect the most vulnerable people in our society from the worst of exploitation by payday lenders. And it is right that the companies that benefit from people's financial plight, accept their responsibilities to help ensure affordable credit is available.

As well as good policy, the announcement is also smart politics. Following his call for an energy price freeze, the Labour leader has again put himself on the side of consumers against predatory companies and set a trap for the Tories. Should they oppose the levy (as will be their instinct), Miliband will accuse Cameron's party of again "standing up for the wrong people" and defending the interests of its donors rather than those of the public. As Labour said last night: "this Tory-led Government stands up only up only for a privileged few and, just as it does nothing to stop energy firms overcharging families, drags its feet over uncontroversial reforms of a poorly regulated industry and is doing little of significance to boost low-cost alternatives to payday lending."

While some Tories are sympathetic to calls for action against payday lenders, others argue that state intervention will raise the cost of borrowing for consumers and push them into the arms of unregulated loan sharks. Labour has already pledged to impose a cap on the rates lenders can charge but despite having supported amendments on this issue in the Lords (after pressure from the opposition and others), the government has yet to act. Asked by Labour MP Paul Blomfield at PMQs yesterday whether he would introduce "tough regulation of payday lenders", Cameron replied: "We are still considering the issue of a cap, and I do not think we should rule it out, although we must bear in mind what has been established in other countries, and by our own research, about whether a cap would prove effective."

The PM will likely take a similar view of Miliband's Wonga tax. But having so badly misjudged their response to his proposed energy price freeze, the Tories would be wise to avoid rushing to oppose it. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. 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.