Deposed: George Lansbury, the only Labour leader to have been forced to resign, pictured in 1937. Photo: Getty
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Muzzling Blair’s dogs, “Jihadi John” and cricket’s awkward squad

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

It has become impossible to pick up a newspaper or log on to Twitter without learning of assorted Blairites denouncing Ed Miliband. Many complaints are about the admittedly ill-advised proposal for a mansion tax. But they form part of a wider narrative in which Labour peers and mostly anonymous MPs describe their leader as “laughable”, “abysmal” and “complacent” and sing the dreary refrain that he must get “closer to business”. One brave MP told the Times that Miliband needed to see a psychologist and would probably “go down in history as one of the worst leaders”. By some oversight, the paper failed to name him.

Less than eight months from a general election, what do these people think they are up to? Most voters are poorer than they were in 2010. The NHS is close to collapse. The senior party in the coalition is deeply divided. These three factors alone should take Labour to victory, whatever Miliband’s faults, and the chances of success won’t be enhanced by internal denigration and disunity. The chances of a change this late in the electoral cycle are close to zero. Labour will either win under Miliband or lose under him.

The Blairites clearly prefer the losing option. They are now the wreckers, not the hard left, which didn’t rock the boat as Tony Blair rose to power. In his farewell conference speech, Blair said: “Whatever you [Labour] do, I’m always with you . . . Wanting you to win.” If he meant it, he should call off the dogs and tell Miliband’s detractors to stay silent.

Don’t drop the pilot

Labour did once overthrow a leader – or, more precisely, cause him to resign – and only weeks before a general election. At the 1935 annual conference, George Lansbury, agonising over how to reconcile his Christian pacifism with opposition to fascism, was publicly told by his union adversary Ernest Bevin to stop “hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”. When the delegates supported sanctions against Italy, which Lansbury regarded as economic warfare, his position became untenable.

The results are not encouraging for those who now think it wise to change leader. Although Labour increased its number of seats, it lost the election. Admittedly, the caretaker leader during the campaign was Clem Attlee, who went on to win the subsequent leadership contest and stayed for 20 years. You could just about imagine Alan Johnson, with his natural diffidence, as an Attlee figure. But Johnson is 64; Attlee was a mere 52. A last-minute change to a palpable stopgap wouldn’t increase Labour’s vote.

Labour gets grand

“Grandees turn on Miliband” was the Times headline over one of many eager reports in the Murdoch press. “Grandee” goes back to 15th-century Spain, where it was used to distinguish the more senior noblemen from the merely rich. In Britain, it was used during the civil war for the Cromwellian army officers, drawn from the landed gentry, who opposed the Levellers. Now it is the kind of word you only ever see in newspapers – one can’t imagine Miliband telling Nick Robinson “I’m worried about the grandees” – and it seems an odd collective noun for those quoted in the Times report, who include Tessa Jowell, John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw) and Lance Price, a former Blair press aide. I had always thought that, on Planet Journalism, only the Tories had grandees. Perhaps the extension of the term to certain Labour “supporters” tells us something.

Jilt Jihadi John

The media were never likely to heed demands from prominent Muslims to stop using “Islamic State” for the terrorists who have just murdered a second British hostage, if only because the suggested alternative, Un-Islamic State, would have created the confusing acronym US. But the press could surely stop referring to the front-man in the murder videos as “Jihadi John”. The name supposedly originated with the hostages who, because of their jailers’ British accents, called them “the Beatles”. The source of this tale is obscure and, as
“Jihadi John” seems to speak with a London accent, it sounds inherently improbable.

“Jihadi John” sounds glamorous, romantic and swashbuckling, particularly, I should think, to the ears of some adolescent Muslims. What about “Subnormal Steve” or “Dopey Donald” instead?

No team in I

Kevin Pietersen is clearly a somewhat abrasive and perhaps mixed-up individual, which I would attribute to childhood canings from his father. But whatever their opinions on his newly published autobiography – which describes the former England cricket coach Andy Flower as “contagiously sour, infectiously dour” and several former team-mates as bullies – millions of people are talking about it. Cricket’s special appeal is that, over long periods of play, it highlights in narrative form the personalities of individuals and how they interact with others. Think of Fred Trueman, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, all men with personal shortcomings who fascinated the public.

Geoffrey Boycott shows that cricketers do not need to be entertaining players to attract such attention. Those who blamelessly “play for the team” are a greater threat to the game’s future than awkward mavericks such as Pietersen. Fortunately, someone like him usually emerges. Ben Stokes, the young all-rounder who broke his hand punching a dressing-room locker, shows great promise.

Tribute cones

The number of cones on the motorways this autumn seems greater than ever. They often stretch miles beyond any visible roadworking activity. Is it time to bring back the cones hotline? John Major, I think, now qualifies as a national treasure but the cones hotline is the only thing most people remember him for. It’s not much of a legacy compared to the NHS or the Open University, but wouldn’t it be a nice gesture for a grateful nation to honour him by restoring it? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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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.