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The people’s flag is deepest blue

If the party has a future, it's with ideas like “little-guy conservatism” - it has to change or die.

The Soviet-style banner proclaimed the movement’s aims: “Full employment, decent pensions for all, world-class schools and hospitals.” This, however, wasn’t a gathering of Unite or the RMT but a conference devoted to securing a Conservative majority at the next general election.

“Victory 2015” was the idea of Tim Montgomerie, the editor of the website ConservativeHome. The slogans, he explained, were an attempt to prove that the right had “ambitions” beyond cutting immigration, slashing the deficit and bashing Brussels. The Tory party, once the most formidable election-winning machine in Europe, had not, as he reminded his audience, won an overall majority in “more than 20 years”. It would change or it would die.

A poll published that morning had found that just 7 per cent of Conservative members believe their party can win the next election. Not one of the activists I spoke to was hopeful of victory. “The left is too modest. It’ll be a big win for Labour,” one told me.

His mood was not improved when the former Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft announced that he had conducted a new survey of 213 marginal seats. Like a physician grimly informing a patient that their illness has spread, Ashcroft paused before declaring that, were a general election held today, Labour would be swept to power with a majority of 84. Ninety-three Tory seats, including southern bellwethers such as Stevenage, Milton Keynes and Watford, would fall to the opposition.

Planning to win the next election, the military aficionado said, was “the equivalent of preparing the final assault on Berlin while evacuating the beaches at Dunkirk”.

Such dystopian visions make the party’s thoughts turn, once again, to regicide. The Tories desperately cling to the belief that a change of leader could save them. Theresa May, the unremarkable Home Secretary and keynote speaker for the day, is suddenly being spoken of as a replacement for David Cameron. “She could be our Angela Merkel,” whispered an activist. But, as Ashcroft’s polling suggests, the Conservative Party’s problem is not its leader. Cameron continues to outpoll both his party and the coalition and he leads Ed Miliband as the voters’ preferred prime minister.

A more accurate diagnosis is offered by those, like Montgomerie, who warn that the Tories are still viewed as the party of the rich.

The antidote to this malady goes by names such as “little-guy conservatism”; all are concerned with rebuilding support for the party among low and middle earners.

If the party has a future, this is it. Yet too many seem content to play the old tunes. The loudest cheers came when May confirmed she was considering allowing the UK to renounce the European Convention on Human Rights, a subject that leaves most voters unmoved. Montgomerie had pointed the way to victory, but the Tory Bennites were still marching down the road to defeat.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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.