Ed Miliband addresses members of the public at Redcar and Cleveland College on March 6, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband wastes an opportunity by going on the TV debates again

The debate about the debates is a process story of little interest to the electorate. 

It was the debate about the TV debates that yet again dominated today's PMQs. Ed Miliband's decision to lead on the subject reflected the weakness of David Cameron's stance and the guaranteed broadcast coverage that results. The Prime Minister's position appeared more contradictory and absurd than ever as he lashed Miliband for having "no policies" and "no plan" while simultaneously rejecting a head-to-head contest with him. He went on to repeatedly avoid the subject by launching his strongest attack yet on Labour's refusal to rule out a post-election deal with the SNP, warning of an "alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Brtain and the people who want to break up Britain". 

Miliband had the edge in the Chamber and Cameron's evasiveness will have been clear to anyone watching. Labour take heart from polls showing that the majority of the public want the debates to happen and regard the PM as the main obstacle. But the problem is how little salience this issue has. Few if any votes will be changed by Cameron's rejectionism. It is, fundamentally, a process story largely of interest to the Westminster media.

Far better would have been for Miliband to lead on defence spending (exploiting a Conservative divide) as two of his MPs, Stella Creasy and Gisela Stuart, did. Alternatively, he could have raised the remarkable figures published by Labour today, showing a 49 per cent rise in long-term youth unemployment among BAME communities. With just two PMQs now remaining before the general election, today's session felt like a wasted opportunity. 

Meanwhile, the tediousness of the debate about the debates is perhaps the best argument for having them. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.