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Ed Miliband's temperamental spin doctor must stay

Tom Baldwin might not be widely liked, but he is starting to make an impact.

Ed Miliband has spent the past week or so intervening. On Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs, he said: “I’m not in favour of tax avoidance, obviously, but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality.” On immigration, he said: “If we are to address people’s concerns, Labour must change its approach to immigration. But we will only be able to answer people’s concerns on immigration if we change our economy, too.”

Gone are the laboured, technocratic statements that characterised the early months of his leadership. Miliband has been deploying what are being branded by Labour insiders as “strategic interventions”. And they are working. “Canny”, was the FT’s description of his response to Carr. “Ed Miliband is right to tackle the toxic immigration debate,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, hardly the most xenophobic of commentators.

What is behind all this skilful, forensic strategising, I asked a shadow cabinet insider. “Tom Baldwin,” came the reply. “Ed’s shifted him to a new role. And he’s doing a good job.”

It was a surprising response for two reasons. First is that the moody and acerbic spin doctor doesn’t have many fans in the shadow cabinet. And the other is that it has been widely predicted he will be leaving Miliband after this year’s Labour conference.

When he was first appointed, Baldwin, a former Times journalist, was supposedly in charge of Miliband’s overarching communications strategy. But he was quickly sucked into day-to-day media management, a role to which he wasn’t well suited. “Bob Roberts [Labour’s newly appointed executive director of communications] is much better at managing the lobby,” said a party source, “and he and Tom don’t get on. You had a situation where Bob and Michael Dugher [MP for Barnsley East] were managing the 24-hour cycle, while Stewart Wood and Greg Beales were managing the long-range political issues. Tom ended up falling between two stools.”

Not any longer. A turning point was when Miliband tried to exploit the post-Budget “Pastygate” furore. He and Balls did a photo opportunity outside a Greggs bakery: they wandered out of the shop munching pasties but Miliband ended up looking like Balls’s researcher. That was a wake-up call.

Brief encounter

It was noticeable that Baldwin’s pre-briefing for the Miliband immigration speech was much more tightly focused than in the past. He carried a concise top line for journalists. “He did well,” said an observer, before delivering the ultimate accolade: “His briefing was even sharper than [the shadow home secretary] Yvette Cooper’s.”

Baldwin is benefiting from the more positive narrative surrounding Miliband at present as well as enjoying more political space to operate in now that the mutterings over the leadership have been silenced temporarily. But former lobby colleagues think he has finally found his niche. “All this ‘Cameron’s out of touch’ stuff is all Tom,” I was told. “He’s been pushing it hard and it’s starting to cut through. You can see it in the polls.”

Baldwin may not be good at winning friends, but he is starting to influence people. Ed Miliband needs his temperamental spin doctor to stay by his side for a while longer.


This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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.