Whiff of anti-popery

Observations on the Left

Is Labour becoming the anti-Catholic party? Young Labour's vice chairman, Conor McGinn, thinks so. He has resigned his position, offended by what he saw as the anti-Catholic attitude surrounding the recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This was most stridently articulated by the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, who asked: "Should devout Catholics such as Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope's word above the government's?"

McGinn describes Honeyball's language as harking back to the days of Guy Fawkes. "Imagine substituting the words Jew or Muslim for Catholic in Mary Honeyball's comments - there would have been a furious reaction," says McGinn, whose stance resonates with several Catholic Labour MPs.

The words have "a strong whiff of the 17th century about them," agrees Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing. He suggests that if there is no place for Catholics in political parties, then that points towards the creation of a separate party. "This leads to exclusively Muslim, Hindu, Anglican and even atheist parties."

Jim Dobbin, MP for Rochdale and chairman of the all-party pro-life group, has sent a letter to Gordon Brown expressing similar concerns. "There was the attempt by Alan Johnson, when education secretary, to force faith schools to take 25 per cent of non-believers. Then there was the adoption agency legislation to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians which finished up discriminating against the Catholic Church. Catholic adoption agencies are now closing."

He adds: "There are five million Catholics in the country. If the government think they can disregard even a small number of these voters then they are living in cloud cuckoo land."

Labour has 43 Catholic MPs, and while just 36 per cent of voters chose Labour in the last election, 53 per cent of Catholics stayed loyal to the party, according to pollster Ipsos Mori. The Catholic vote is particularly strong in London, Scotland and the north-west (where one in five is Catholic).

Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, is under no illusions that the anti-Catholic rhetoric could have serious implications for the party at the ballot box. "Those behind the attacks fail to understand the strength of the Catholic constituency - not just voters backing Labour, but also among activists, unions and MPs."

Not all parliamentarians share the view that there is an anti-Catholic bias within the Labour Party. Thurrock MP Andrew Mackinlay says that, in the more than 30 years he has been a member, the party is no more anti-Catholic now than it has been at any time in the past. He believes that on the question of faith schools, Alan Johnson just made a political miscalculation; and climbed down when that was pointed out.

One northern Catholic MP does not believe the prejudice is anything like as bad as in the past. "When the debate on abortion was on in 1988 my local party tried to deselect me because of my position against it. At the actual vote there was a lot of strong-arming in the lobby, and there wasn't this time."

But he believes the Catholic Church is not helping itself by its actions. "The Church has to decide whether it wants to disengage from politics altogether on broader issues and just be heard on personal issues like abortion and euthanasia. The perception is increasing, both in parliament and in the media, that the Church only has a view on these particular issues."

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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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.