Conservative party conference. Photo: Getty
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Angela Eagle: The Tories have broken their promises on political reform

David Cameron has reinforced the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests, argues the shadow leader of the Commons.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

At their coming conference the Tories apparently plan to announce that their membership has risen. The problem is that it hasn’t. Since David Cameron was elected it is estimated a staggering 118,600 members have fled the Party, a number equivalent to the population of Tunbridge Wells.

Today I’ve written to Grant Shapps to urge him to come clean on Tory membership. Instead of falsely inflating the numbers by adding in ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ as it is reported he will do, he should own up and reveal the true scale of Dave Cameron's lost army of Conservative members.

This latest attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes says it all about the Tories and their broken promises on political reform. They have failed to reform their own party, failed to reform our politics, and are now fiddling the figures to cover it up.

Before the election David Cameron promised he was going to “fix” our broken politics. He opined about the problem of a few donors buying influence. He said he was going to shine the “light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.

But the second he stepped over the threshold of Number Ten, he reverted to Tory type and started doing the complete opposite.

Latest figures show that hedge funds have given the Tories a staggering £45.7 million. Hedge funds have been given a tax cut worth £145 million. This year alone £5 million has been donated to the Tories by people who had private dinners with the PM and senior ministers. And the Lobbying Act was just a Trojan horse for an attack on charities and campaigners while lobbying was made less transparent, not more.

On every test he set himself, David Cameron has failed. He hasn’t built a better politics, he’s done all he can to reinforce the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

In Labour, we don’t just talk about political reform, we have put our money where our mouth is. We’ve implemented a root and branch reform of our membership structure to ensure that we reach out to millions of working people around the UK. We have written our policy programme with the input of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve travelled the country talking to people who don’t vote about why, and we have come up with a comprehensive programme of political reform that we will implement in government. This includes reform of our legislative system and giving the public a say at PMQs, a universal register of all professional lobbyists backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, and a comprehensive devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities.

During my People’s Politics Inquiry I met Karina, a young mum who has never voted. She told me that politics turns her off because all she sees is a Government that helps their mates at the top. She’s not the only one who feels like that. Voter turnout has been in decline for decades, and active involvement in politics is in decline too.

If the Tories want to rebuild trust in politics they must start by being open about the state of their membership. But, much more importantly, they need to stop talking about political reform and start acting.

The choice between Labour and the Tories is clear. A hollowing-out Tory Party who want to keep political power in the hands of a few. Or a vibrant Labour movement, who want to put power back in the hands of the country.

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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.