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Miliband’s turn as a street preacher is hampered by his lack of disciples

The Labour leader is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Politicians face a simple choice when the public disagrees with them: yield or defy. They can bend policy to suit opinion polls or reinforce the unpopular case in the hope of changing minds. The worst thing to do is to try both and succeed at neither. That is Labour’s approach to a range of issues, most notably welfare.

Every survey shows British hearts hardening against the benefits system. It is believed to promote idleness and fraud. That suspicion allows George Osborne to take money away from some of the least fortunate people in the country and present it as justice – a purge of waste and a restoration of the proper balance between effort and reward.

The chutzpah of it enrages the left. The Tory strategy exploits the public’s inflated view of how much milking of the system goes on and how much it costs. Ministers mangle statistics and cite the most perverse cases – the apocryphal family of lager-soaked layabouts squatting in mansions at taxpayers’ expense – as if they were typical. Many benefit cuts won’t even save the exchequer money. Taking support away from penniless people creates social emergencies that end up costing more in the long run.

That provokes much of Labour into defiance. Surely, the argument goes, the evidence can be fashioned into a sword for slaying the propaganda beast? If people believe Osborne, it must be because the right-wing media are peddling lies or because the gruesome effect of the cuts isn’t yet visible. The passage of time is invoked as Ed Miliband’s secret weapon.

A similar line of thinking sustains Labour in another argument it isn’t winning – the one about austerity. On 26 June, Osborne will set out his spending plans for the year 2015-2016. Labour will be challenged to say whether it would spend more and, if so, how such generosity might be funded.

Ed Balls’s response is that the cuts are a symptom of economic failure and that this latest Spending Review wouldn’t be necessary at all if the Chancellor had managed to grow the economy. It is a variation of the old line “We wouldn’t start from here” – and it fails to convince because everyone knows that a Labour government would face grim fiscal dilemmas wherever it started from.

Labour strategists point out that no sensible opposition declares its spending strategy two years before a general election. Why should Miliband debate on terms dictated by a chancellor whose judgement has been audited by independent economists and proven dud? That invites the counter-question: why, given that Osborne is a neon-lit disaster factory, have the terms of debate shifted so little? Whose job is it to shift them?

Miliband has the same problem discussing the economy as he has with welfare. Many voters think that Labour is to blame for the mess and he disagrees. People think that Gordon Brown spent too much money, especially on benefits. Miliband doesn’t accept those charges but nor does he enjoy rebutting them. He tries to shuffle past them. He concedes that a future Labour government would have to spend less than the last one but doesn’t say on what. He says that Labour would guarantee jobs for people capable of working and dock their benefits if they refuse.

He gives the impression of a man itching to change the subject when asked to show contrition over something for which he feels no apology is due.

It isn’t working. Even some Miliband loyalists complain that the party line on benefits is bombing on the doorstep. They meet enraged voters who work for dwindling wages and hate subsidising the family with their feet up next door. Osborne’s mobilisation of that fury may be cynical but he isn’t making it up. Labour MPs report that the “jobs guarantee” doesn’t placate fuming punters.

It doesn’t help that party morale has taken a knock in recent weeks. Miliband has been buffeted by advice from people who can diminish his authority just by airing a view in public. Tony Blair warned against lefty comfort zones; the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warned against Blairism. The resurgence of these old antagonisms needn’t have been so destabilising. They furnish an opportunity for Miliband to clarify his identity – to reaffirm the message that he is neither “New” nor “Old” Labour but something different, something fresh. But what? The undercurrent of dread I detect in the Labour ranks flows not from the feeling that Miliband belongs to the wrong faction but from the sense that his whole project is becalmed.

The Labour leader can charm voters individually. He is witty and engaging on the campaign trail, although those qualities refuse to come across on television. A bit more animal magnetism wouldn’t go amiss but what Labour people crave most is the sense that Miliband is winning the big arguments, shifting the terms of debate – and more than just one voter at a time. His leadership is based on the claim to have foreseen a great change in the climate of British politics. He is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Miliband’s “one-nation” Labour is soft-left evangelism. It sells optimism and solidarity as the antidote to division and despair. Yet the basic requirement of an evangelist is the ability to instil faith and win converts. Miliband too often cuts the lonely figure of a preacher with a restless congregation and not enough disciples.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.