My husband has been sacked by the Telegraph and now he’s buying acid

"Man up": when I'm out canvassing this is what people tell me they want the Labour Party to do. I suggested recently that "man up a bit" might be enough but was told you can't half man up. I object to the sexist language but the message is surely right. We need to kick this lot out. People will only support us with gusto when we show we have the balls to do so. (Sorry, this sexist language gets in everywhere but what is the female equivalent?)

Too many of our spokespeople sound as if they are still in government: cautious and managerial to a fault. Nor is there much substance because they are frightened of coming up with policies so far ahead of an election. They seem to accept that there will not be an election until 2015, which I am not so sure about. But if there is not going to be an election for three and a half years, now is the time to go for our shots. That is the way to test out which arguments work and which don't. We need to fire some bullets at the government and it doesn't matter if some of them miss. We as a party are way more united than the coalition government, which can't move for fear of destroying the ramshackle balance of power on which it rests.


I've been a Labour councillor in Camden, north London, for two and a half months now. I was elected at a by-election and represent Highgate, which includes most of Hampstead Heath. As usual in elections (I stood as a parliamentary candidate in South Leicestershire last year), I didn't get much help from my husband, Andrew Gimson, who likes to describe himself as a journalist of Tory disposition. Indeed, he has some really rather unacceptable views. He thinks the health service, for instance, should all be in charitable or private hands and that the state has no business running schools.

Nevertheless, Andrew is now an ageing fogey and is a great believer in the British parliamentary system, even though this was only
a local election. He came to the count and bought me a celebratory drink afterwards.

Spouse in the house

Andrew has been sacked as parliamentary sketch writer for the Daily Telegraph and is now around at home rather a lot. On the one hand, I'm pleased that we will no longer be receiving blood money from the Telegraph. There have been times when I have not been comfortable that his deeply unpleasant attacks on Labour leaders' performances at Prime Minister's Questions have been paying our mortgage. On the other hand, I don't think the update of his biography of Boris Johnson, on which he is working full-time, will be quite as profitable.

Extreme plumbing

Andrew has managed to get hold of a bottle of sulphuric acid. He says he bought it at an old-fashioned ironmongers. For the past couple of days he has been using it to try to unblock the shower drain, without success, partly because the acid has to trickle a long way to reach the blockage. I have suggested there might be other more modern and effective products on the market, but he seems strangely fixated on the acid.

Camden lock-out

Camden Council is rapidly losing money and power. Up to £100m is being cut from the budget over the next three years (around 27 per cent to 2014). And the government is eroding the council's main powers to run schools, housing and planning. It is hard to keep up with the deluge of legislation that is designed to undermine local democracy. We have been elected by the people of Camden to protect them against the worst of Tory/Lib Dem excesses, but I wonder now I've got here whether we may just be forced to do their dirty work.

Flat broke

I suppose I always knew this, but when you are a council committed to achieving more equality, the property-market statistics look horrific. You cannot borrow the cost of a flat in Camden unless you are earning £150,000 a year. The income of the average social-housing tenant is about £15,000. Government policy, which is to allow families on this kind of income to be charged up to 80 per cent of the market rent, will just drive them out of London. Camden is resisting this for its council tenants, but won't be able to stop housing associations following the government line.

Bid for power

I am kicking myself that I didn't stay for the whole of the auction in aid of the Highgate Newtown Community Centre. I thought I had done enough by bidding £20 for a set of flowery china and winning it. A later lot, consisting of signed copies of the editions of Hansard that record some of local resident Ed Miliband's parliamentary performances, went for only £8. If only I had been there, I could have done my duty as a loyal Labour councillor and driven the bidding into double figures.

Lady and the tramp

You never know as a councillor in Highgate who you are going to meet next. The head of legal services at Camden Council had already warned me that, at one of the first residents' meetings he attended, Lenny Hoffman - Lord Hoffman, a retired law lord - was there, too.

A constituent called Alison Kelly got in touch with me because she was arranging the funeral of a local tramp named Adrian O'Rourke. She wanted to contact his estranged daughter. A prominent local figure, Mr O'Rourke had been the oldest man in the borough to be issued with an Asbo last year, but he became the Kellys' friend because he lived a few doors down from them in a council flat.(He died with Alison's husband's telephone number in his pocket.) It turns out her husband is Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the committee on standards in public life. Mr O'Rourke's funeral was on 25 November. They buried him to the sound of a Mozart piano concerto and read a poem about Parliament Hill Fields by John Betjeman. The Kellys still haven't been able to trace the daughter, thought to be called Marie or Maureen Bacon and last heard of living on a farm in Kent.

Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor for Highgate, Camden

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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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.