Labour should put the phone down. Photo: Flickr/DaveBleasdale
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Tony Blair's EU error, Labour's nuisance calls, and Peter Hitchens' defence of Ed Miliband

Plus a call for a parliament so hung it can't make pointless changes.

Would a hung parliament – so hung that it could hardly agree on anything except tax and supply and certainly not on fresh legislation – really be such a bad thing? Look back over the past four decades and it is hard to think of any new laws or government programmes that did more good than harm.

It is not just the obvious disasters: the failed IT schemes, costing tens of billions of pounds; the poll tax; the Millennium Dome; the Child Support Agency; John Major’s privatisation of the railways; Gordon Brown’s preposterously complicated public-private partnership for the London Tube; Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit “reforms” and many more fiascos, great and small. What should worry us more is the systemic meddling with established services such as health, education and policing that seems to do little more than distract doctors, teachers and police officers from healing the sick, educating our children or fighting crime.

You may think it strange that a leftist who wants several public utilities renationalised, more progressive taxes and more employee-friendly labour laws should look forward to a less active state. Yet few of the ideas I favour are on anybody’s agenda in this
election. The three main political parties are offering alternative programmes for pointless rearrangement of furniture. The less of that, the better.


Hitched to Red Ed

If Ed Miliband is dejected by the progress of the election campaign, at least he can celebrate a surprising new supporter. The Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens announces that, for the first time in 30 years, he is “seriously thinking” of voting so he can cast his ballot for Labour. He disagrees with Miliband about almost everything, but “the fashionable left’s” loathing of the Labour leader makes Hitchens want to “stand up for him against this nasty mob”. He did so on Question Time on Maundy Thursday.

Hitchens believes that “Islington lefties and the BBC” are “fervently backing” David Cameron so that Miliband can be replaced by a Blairite. Much as I welcome Hitchens’s eloquent advocacy for the Labour leader, this may be a conspiracy theory too far even for me, particularly as Blair supporters hardly qualify as fashionable these days. More-over, Blair himself has just backed Miliband for his “real leadership on the EU”. But that, I suppose, is another twist in the plot, with New Labourites calculating that both Blair and the EU are so unpopular that his speech will deliver more votes for Cameron.


Tony view of history

Blair has always been shaky on history,
apparently believing, for instance, that the US stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain in 1940 when in fact it was neutral. Now, his speech in his former Sedgefield constituency contains this: “The referendum [promised by Cameron on the EU] will for the first time since we joined Europe . . . put exit on the agenda.” Blair was a 22-year-old student in 1975 when a Labour government held a referendum on EU membership. Can he have been so preoccupied with his pop band Ugly Rumours that he didn’t notice? Or is there something we haven’t been told about what he inhaled at Oxford?


After Boris, Bloomberg?

Long experience, as both a Sunday Times journalist and a Sunday Times reader, tells me not to believe everything I read in that paper. But its report that Michael Bloomberg, three times mayor of New York, is being canvassed as mayor of London has the ring of truth. Of the 100 largest UK-listed companies, more than a third have chief executives from overseas. Eight of the 20 Premier League football managers are foreign (not counting Welsh and Irish). The English cricket team has twice had Zimbabwean coaches. Cameron’s campaign is being run by an Australian, Miliband’s by an American. Importing foreigners to stand for election is the logical next step. Yes, there are citizenship requirements but, as the Sunday Times helpfully explains, you can be “fast-tracked” if you “invest” £2m in the UK. The paper reports that “Conservative sources” (presumably a pimply youth at a Tory think tank) reckon Bloomberg could be turned into a British citizen almost instantly. You can write the slogan now: a cosmopolitan mayor for a cosmopolitan city.


A very foreign editor

The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, I could have added, have an American editor-in-chief. But Jason Seiken, after barely 18 months in post, has departed. Though his is hardly a name to bracket with past Telegraph editors such as Bill Deedes, Max Hastings and Charles Moore, this is probably the most significant news in recent press history. Seiken, who previously worked for the US public broadcaster PBS, came with zero knowledge of Britain and not much more of newspapers anywhere. But his digital skills, it was said, were dazzling.

Alas, following Sieken’s appointment, the Telegraph’s circulation decline accelerated and several senior journalists left. Even the paper’s online readership grew less quickly than its rivals’. Newspapers may seek global audiences but an understanding of their history, culture and roots still matters. Perhaps Bloomberg’s British supporters will take note.


Labour’s nuisance calls

Brrrng, brrrng. Not someone offering help with my accident or payment protection insurance claim, but the Labour Party, which rings at least once a week and emails (strangely addressing me as “Peter John”) even more frequently. It wants a donation to the party’s election campaign. I point out that I have already donated several times. The callers, apparently under the impression that I am a hedge-fund manager or retired pop star, persist. It had not previously occurred to me that membership of
a political party would make me the target of cold calls. I do hope that, in its eagerness to win the election, Labour doesn’t drive away what few members it still has. 

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 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.