Ed Miliband speaks to Labour supporters on January 17, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's pledge to cap rent rises is smart politics

The Labour leader has offered relief to the millions who can't afford to buy and who long for security.

For months, Labour MPs and activists have been waiting for Ed Miliband to announce a sequel to his energy price freeze: another popular market intervention that demonstrates how the party would tackle the living standards crisis and that creates a powerful dividing line with the Tories. In the form of his new policy on private rents, Miliband may have just provided it.

At Labour's local and European election campaign launch in Redbridge tomorrow, he will pledge to cap rent rises and to extend the standard tenancy period from six months to three years. Alongside this, he will commit to banning letting agent fees, forcing landlords to bear the cost and saving the average new household £350. 

Under the plan, modelled on Ireland's recent reforms, an "upper ceiling", based on a benchmark such as inflation or the average market rent in the area, will be placed on rent increases to prevent "excessive rises", and tenants will automatically win the right to remain in their property for at least two-and-a-half years following a six month probation period. Landlords will only be able to terminate contracts with two months' notice if the tenant falls into arrears, is guilty of anti-social behaviour, or breaches their contract; or if they want to sell the property or use it for their family. Crucially, they will not be able to end tenancies simply to increase the rent. 

It is one of Miliband's most politically astute interventions to date. In the form of Help to Buy, the Tories have emphasised their commitment to expanding home ownership (although the policy will ultimately achieve the reverse), but they have had little to offer the large and growing number who are either unable (with or without state subsidy) or unwilling to buy. As Miliband will note in his speech tomorrow, there are now nine million people and 1.3 million households renting privately. There are a huge number of votes to be won from offering them a better deal.

A senior Labour source earlier denied to me that the party had embraced "rent controls" (since the market will still determine the starting level) but Miliband shouldn't run scared of the term. A YouGov poll of Londoners earlier this month found that 55 per cent support rent controls with just 19 per cent opposed - and little wonder. Renters are currently paying an average of £1,020 a year more than in 2010 and those in private accommodation have fared worst. In 2012, rent payments represented an average of 41 per cent of their gross income, compared with 30 per cent for social renters and 19 per cent for owner occupiers.

The beauty of the policy, in this era of fiscal constraint, is that it won't cost a penny of government money. Indeed, by limiting rent rises, it will reduce costs to the state by lowering housing benefit payments. By embracing predistribution (seeking more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits), Miliband has found a way to reduce inequality whilst sticking to his tough deficit reduction targets.

Miliband isn't promising a reduction in rents, as some in Labour would wish, but he is promising the security and peace of mind that comes with knowing how much you will owe your landlord in three years' time. As he will say tomorrow: "These new longer-term tenancies will limit the amount that rents can rise by each year too - so landlords know what they can expect each year and tenants can’t be surprised by rents that go through the roof.

"This is Labour’s fair deal for rented housing in Britain: long-term tenancies and stable rents so that people can settle down, know where the kids will go to school, know their home will still be there for them tomorrow."

So keen are the Tories to kill the idea at birth that CCHQ rushed out a non-embargoed press release at 5:16pm, with Grant Shapps denouncing Miliband for proposing "Venezuelan-style rent controls" and caving in to Len McCluskey. But this stock leftie baiting won't resonate with an electorate crying out for relief from the ravages of the market (and with no interest in where Hugo  Chávez stood on the issue). As in the case of the energy price freeze, the Tories may denounce Miliband for "bringing back socialism", but they will soon discover that "socialism" is more popular than they think. And having performed the largest-ever state intervention in the mortgage market, through Help to Buy, they will struggle to attack Labour on libertarian grounds.

The Conservatives' aim is to present rent controls as ineffective as well as illiberal. Shapps said: "Evidence from Britain and around the world conclusively demonstrates that rent controls lead to poorer quality accommodation, fewer homes being rented and ultimately higher rents – hurting those most in need." Yet as Labour sources are pointing out, in Ireland, where longer-term tenancies and predictable rents were recently introduced, the private sector has grown, not shrunk. Forget Venezuela, Germany, New York, France and Spain all benefit from imposing limits on the market. 

"Generation rent is a generation that has been ignored for too long," Miliband will say tomorrow. But no longer - and it is Labour that will reap the political benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.