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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle