Ed Miliband delivering a speech on international development in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband pledges to scrap stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader promises to remove charge on properties worth up to £300,000 as party steps up housing offensive. 

At the start of the final full week of campaigning, Labour is maintaining its focus on housing, an issue that is playing a bigger role at this election than any other in recent history. After yesterday promising a cap on private rent increases, Ed Miliband will pledge to scrap stamp duty for almost all first-time buyers and to give them priority access to new homes - two strong policy offers that the Tories will struggle to match. He will also announce that Labour would begin construction on a million new homes by 2020 to deliver its commitment to build 200,000 a year by the end of the parliament. 

Stamp duty will be reduced to zero on properties worth up to £300,000, which Labour estimates would benefit nine in 10 first-time buyers by up to £5,000. The £225m cost would be met by tackling tax avoidance by landlords (through the introduction of a national register), increasing the tax paid by holding companies that buy property on behalf of investors, raising stamp duty on foreign buyers from outside the EU by at least 3 per cent and reducing the tax relief that rogue landlords receive for repairs and upkeep when the properties they own are not up to the required standard. 

Labour's "first call" policy would give first-time buyers that have lived in an area for more than three years priority access to up to half of all the homes built in their area. In addition, the "local first" policy would make it illegal to advertise properties abroad before doing so at home, increase taxes on foreign investors and allow local councils to charge 100 per cent more council tax on any homes that have been left empty for one year to discourage "buy to leave".

In a speech in the ultra-marginal Tory seat of Stockton, Miliband will say: "There’s nothing more British than the dream of home ownership, starting out in a place of your own. But for so many young people today that dream is fading with more people than ever renting when they want to buy, new properties being snapped up before local people get a look-in, young families wondering if this country will ever work for them. That is the condition of Britain today, a modern housing crisis which only a Labour government will tackle." 

Of the stamp duty pledge, he will say: "It is simply too expensive for so many young people to buy a home today, saving up for the deposit, paying the fees and having enough left over for the stamp duty. So we’re going to act so we can transform the opportunities for young working people in our country. For the first three years of the next Labour government, we will abolish stamp duty for all first time buyers of homes under £300,000."

The aim of widening property ownership has historically been viewed as a conservative aspiration but it is one that Labour has also embraced. In an article for the New Statesman in 2012, Marc Stears, Miliband’s chief speechwriter, wrote: "The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon." It is also true that the majority of voters continue to wish to own their own home. No party with an interest in winning elections can afford to neglect this desire. Miliband has made it his ambition to double the number of first-time buyers to 400,000 by 2025.

Unlike the Conservatives, however, Labour has recognised the economic reality that, even with state assistance, property will remain prohibitively expensive for many. There are votes to be won in improving conditions for the UK’s 11 million private renters (who now outnumber their social counterparts). Thirty five per cent are swing voters and more than half of these (52 per cent) cite the cost of housing as their greatest concern. Even more notably for Westminster psephologists, there are 86 constituencies in which the incumbent party’s majority is smaller than the former group. Of this total, 37 feature on Labour’s target list of 106 seats. It is with an eye to capturing such constituencies that the party has promised to standardise three-year tenancies, to cap rent increases and to ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants. In London, in particular, where the party hopes to win almost all 12 of its target seats, this will help give Labour the edge. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era