Why can't we just build some more houses? Image: Getty.
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The Tories want to give away houses to make sure we have enough houses

Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

Hey, guys, I've got this great new idea for sorting out Britain's defence problems. The British military is under-equipped, right? The biggest problem facing our boys is that they, basically, just don't have enough stuff.

So, here’s my plan for making sure the military does have enough equipment: we sell off all the equipment that it already has. But – and this is the clever part – we do it at a massive discount.

No, trust me, this is definitely going to work.

Because, with the money we get from those sales, we can then buy some new equipment, right? I mean, probably not as much as we had to start with, because we offered that discount to motivate sales. That is certainly a downside, I’ll admit.

But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and as we all know, there's no money left. So, thanks to the mess that Labour left us in, the only way to guarantee we have a properly equipped military is to sell off all the equipment that the British military already has.

And that is my long-term economic plan for Britain's hardworking soldiers.

Okay, so, nobody seriously thinks that this is a sensible military procurement strategy. And yet, in a different sphere of public life, “giving stuff away to make sure you have enough stuff” is an entirely respectable position, despite the fact it implies a level of economic illiteracy that should get you banned from so much as entering a branch of Tesco.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times confirmed that the Tories were, as a key plank of their manifesto, consider a massive ramping up of the right-to-buy. That, you’ll recall, was an iconic Thatcher era policy under which council tenants were given an automatic right to purchase their homes at a massive discount, and which has had absolutely no downsides in the 30 years since.

The point of the policy was to turn Britain into a "property-owning democracy", and it was, at heart, a political move. It worked on the assumption that people who own homes are more likely to vote Conservative than people who live in council houses. So, if you’re a Tory, you want more of the former, and fewer of the latter.

That, someone clearly thinks, still applies. Somebody in the Tory hierarchy has looked at which voters the party needs to win over to stay in government, looked at the fact there's a housing crisis, and put two and two together to make the square root of minus one.

Now, the party's manifesto will reportedly include an extension of the right-to-buy to cover tenants living in housing association (HA) properties. The proceeds of these sales, unlike the proceeds of past right-to-buy transactions, would be ploughed back into extra housing. In other words, it amounts to making sure we have enough tanks by selling off all our tanks.

There are so many problems with this policy that you’d think at least one of them would have come up in the discussions at CCHQ. One is that it HAs aren't actually an arm of government, so the government is promising to sell things it doesn’t actually own. It can probably find a way of making them do so anyway, but the bills that’ll result from the resulting legal wrangling seem an odd sort of thing to prioritise right now.

Another problem is that the policy will haemorrhage money, since that discount basically amounts to the state giving individual tenants a bung. "Sources" claim it'll eat into the housing benefit bill; that sounds optimistic to me, but even if it does, it will have done so by handing out houses to a lucky few, and as a British taxpayer who isn't being offered a subsidised house I feel a bit miffed about that.

And that is the biggest problem here: never mind the fact it’ll generate less cash that it costs us, or the fact that if the Tories really wanted to get the state building houses again they’ve had five years in which to do that. Consider the political ramifications.

Reuters report over the weekend said that the policy was “aiming to sway voters who are struggling to buy a house”. Now I know quite a lot of voters who'd describe themselves that way, and at least some of them would probably be open to a touch of electorally bribery. Extending right-to-buy to them would be a massive vote winner.

So why is nobody doing so? Because those people, some 9m of them, live in the private rented sector, over which the government has even less control than it does over housing associations. Those people would love the right to buy a house – but nobody is coming forward to give them one.

Because the problem with Britain’s housing market is not that HA tenants can’t buy their own homes. It’s that we need to build more bloody houses.

Still, I'm sure private renters will be delighted to see a future Tory government handing out subsidised houses like sweets to those who were lucky enough to be living in them at the time. It’s quite clear to me now that the only way to make sure we have enough houses is to give away houses. Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

That makes sense, right? Right?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt