Ed Miliband with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander at the Labour conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's view on an EU referendum - a work in progress

Miliband doesn't want to make a pledge that raises more questions than it answers.

The Times reported yesterday that Labour will commit to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership – but will not match David Cameron’s promise of a vote before the end of 2017.

The story is more an act of confident speculation than a declaration of new policy. Sources who are familiar with the opposition’s perpetual agonising over this issue say the old line – now is not the right time to commit to an in/out vote –  hasn’t changed.

Consistency on this point is important to the Labour high command because they want to present Ed Miliband as the man who thinks about these issues in terms of the long-term national interest, in contrast with David Cameron who flits around chasing the latest whim of his back benchers.

That doesn’t mean Labour aren’t considering how to address the referendum challenge. It is a rolling conversation in Miliband’s inner circle and the lack of clarity has been a source of irritation to the leader. One senior party figure recently told me it was the topic Miliband least relishes in preparation for interviews. He knows the line, but senses that it is wearing thin. So, despite the formal denials, I’m increasingly confident there will be some shift in the position and the likeliest moment to do it (as I’ve argued before) is when Labour launches its campaign ahead of May’s European parliamentary elections.

The position outlined in the Times also sounds like a plausible candidate for the place that Labour might end up with. It is worth noting that the party has already accepted the terms of the coalition’s so-called "sovereignty bill" – the 2011 act that creates a "referendum lock" in the event that Britain signs a treaty involving the cession of powers to Brussels. Of course, there is a big difference between a treaty that ministers accept involves transfers of sovereignty and one that ministers can claim does no such thing.

A Labour source points out that the former category of European deal– the kind for which the sovereignty act was devised – is actually pretty unlikely, even if the current institutional tinkering to fix the single currency results in a formal treaty. Such a treaty would obviously require greater integration among eurozone members but Britain would, by the same token, be excused from any federalising clauses. In other words, it isn’t quite true to say that Labour has already de facto accepted there will be a referendum if and when the next EU treaty comes along. Labour has only accepted that current statute insists that a certain kind of treaty necessitates a national vote.

Yet a factor in Labour’s calculations is that a referendum on a treaty is a lot easier to lose than a straight in/out vote. People feel more comfortable striking down some pesky piece of paper from Brussels than formally severing ties with the union. For that reason – since the overwhelming majority of Labour wants the UK to stay in the EU – it makes sense for any vote that is held to be on the bigger question of membership. (This would also align Labour’s position pretty squarely with the Lib Dem view. That gives Clegg and Miliband two-against-one security in arguing that they have the sensible, pragmatic position and Cameron’s date-specific pledge is born of impractical ideological impulse.)

One of many reasons why Labour remains cautious in this whole area is that anything that looks like a commitment to a referendum raises far more questions than it answers. Those at the top of the party who have counselled against a definitive pledge say it is delusional to think that matching Cameron’s line – or similar – closes the issue down. On the contrary, it provokes a series of trickier tests: Would Labour also renegotiate membership before putting it to a vote? On what terms? Would powers be "repatriated?" Miliband is in no hurry to start getting bogged down in that kind of detail, all of which involves debating on terms set by Cameron to the dictation of Tory back benchers. And that is the outcome the Labour leader most wants to avoid.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.