Conservative ministers at the party's conference in Manchester in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are obsessed with Miliband’s “weakness”. They’d do better to reflect on their own

Rather than rejoicing at the Labour leader's unpopularity, the Tories should ask themselves why they continue to trail in the polls.

When David Cameron was forced to disown Rebekah Brooks at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, he despatched an emissary to express his regret. “Sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but Ed Miliband had me on the run,” was the message relayed to the former News International chief executive. The Labour leader had forced Cameron to play catch-up by breaking one of the unwritten rules of British politics and declaring war on Rupert Murdoch.

But if the Prime Minister felt threatened by Miliband then, he doesn’t now. A “profound apology” was what Cameron promised if Andy Coulson, whom he appointed first as director of communications of the Conservative Party and then to the same role at No 10, was found guilty of phone-hacking. But there was nothing profound about the terse, matter-of-fact message that the Prime Minister recorded shortly after the legal verdict was announced. The banality of his response reflected the Tories’ belief that any damage from the affair had already been done. “We’ve cauterised the wound,” a Conservative MP told me.

It was also evidence of Miliband and Cameron’s changed fortunes. When the former had the Prime Minister “on the run”, his net approval rating stood at -21 to Cameron’s -25. It now stands at -43 to Cameron’s -13. More than the economic recovery, the incumbency factor and Labour’s spendthrift reputation, it is Miliband’s parlous personal ratings that give the Tories hope that they will emerge victorious in May 2015.

That an increasing number in Labour take the same view has reinforced their confidence. Jon Cruddas’s call in an interview with me for an end to political “top trumps”, and his declaration that “it’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper]”, offer a glimpse into the conversations that some of the party’s MPs are having in private about the leadership. Although there is no outright disloyalty to Miliband, the subject of defeat and what it would mean for Labour arises with ever-greater frequency.

Yet Miliband heads a party that has led in the polls almost continuously for three years. When the Tories moved ahead after George Osborne’s deft Budget in March, many predicted that Labour’s lead had ended permanently. However, the party’s slight but stubborn advantage has returned.

Rather than rejoicing at Miliband’s subterranean personal ratings, the Tories should ask themselves why. The optimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ vote share is a “lagging indicator” that will shift as the fruits of the economic recovery are shared more widely and as voters properly consider whom they want to run the country. It is one echoed by some in Labour. Veterans of the Kinnock era recall that the party led the Tories for years in opposition but that John Major’s lead as “the best prime minister” proved decisive. Their Scottish colleagues note that the same was true in the case of Iain Gray and Alex Salmond in the 2011 Holyrood election. No party leader has ever won while trailing on both leadership and economic competence and few Tories believe that Miliband will be the first.

The pessimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ depressed ratings reflect the long-term structural weakness of the Tory brand. This is the party that won just 36 per cent of the vote against Gordon Brown’s government in 2010, that 57 per cent of the public “dislike” (compared to 43 per cent for Labour and 47 per cent for the Liberal Democrats) and that just 31 per cent think is “on the side of people like me”.

It was the belief that such uncomfortable truths had to be confronted, rather than ignored, that underpinned Cameron’s modernisation project. The Tories’ centrist shift enabled them to win their biggest swing since 1931 and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat. But just at the moment when Cameron should have consolidated his advantage, he retreated. In the months following the 2010 election, the view hardened that the Tories had failed to win a majority because they were insufficiently “tough” on immigration, welfare and Europe, not because too few trusted them to manage public services and to govern in the interests of all voters. After this, the party’s rightwards trajectory in office became inevitable.

In his leaked attack on Cameron’s EU strategy, the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski (an old Bullingdon Club contemporary of Boris Johnson at Oxford) lamented that he had “ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him”. The same is true in almost every other area. The man who once declared that his priorities could be defined by the three letters “N-H-S” now avoids mentioning the subject in deference to the Conservatives’ election strategist Lynton Crosby. After trying and failing to erode Labour’s lead on the issue by pinning the blame for the Mid Staffs scandal on them, Crosby has concluded that even to acknowledge the existence of the health service only gives succour to the opposition.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Conservative Party has only two modes: panic and complacency. Having exhibited plenty signs of the former (as displayed by the intermittent briefing wars over Cameron’s putative successor), the Tories are now lapsing into the latter. The monomaniacal focus on Labour’s weaknesses, rather than their own, is evidence of a party that is in danger of forgetting why it did not win a majority in 2010. “We have made a series of mistakes collectively because we have always underestimated him [Miliband],” said Eric Pickles recently, in a rare moment of Conservative self-criticism. But even more than that, the Tories need to avoid overestimating themselves. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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