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Don't blame it on the nurses!

George Osborne's scapegoating public sector workers for the excesses of his friends in the City is o

As the eldest son and heir of 17th baronet, Sir Peter Osborne, George Osborne has clearly had a very privileged upbringing.

Clearly out of touch with reality, he tried to deflect attention away from his friends in the City, the bankers and greedy speculators who have dragged this country into the financial crisis, by pounding public sector workers.

It was interesting to see the subsequent back-tracking as this outburst backfired on the Tory Party. However, it gives us a clear insight into Tory thinking and what would be in store should they succeed at the next general election.

His remark that “the age of excess is over” will outrage nurses, paramedics, occupational therapists, midwives, hospital cleaners and cooks – all my members working in the NHS, who have certainly never had an age of excess to get over.

They do not need to be told by the Tories that “we need an age of restraint and responsibility’ it goes with their jobs. Just because they signed up to a three year pay deal, in good faith, it does not make them part of the “debt problem”.

In fact many low paid health workers face long-term debt problems of their own. Last year NHS staff accepted a three-year pay deal, which is worth 2.54 per cent from 1 April this year.

Hardly excessive, it won’t cover the extra cost of everyday essentials such as food, fuel, transport gas and electricity.

A nurse on £22,000 a year or a hospital porter on £14,000 might be forgiven for wondering how this “age of excess” passed them by.

The deal covers more than one million health workers and was agreed through the NHS pay review body. Only recently MPs were awarded 2.33 per cent by their review body, which makes the two awards very similar. This suggests that the deal is not out of kilter with prevailing economic conditions.

The Tories cannot lay the blame for the economic crisis at the door of public sector workers, with or without three-year pay deals.

Local Government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have just been offered 0.5 per cent - just 3p an hour for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Instead of piling pressure on public sector workers, the Tories would do well to remember the vital role that local services play during an economic downturn.

In times of recession governments have traditionally turned to public services as their first line of defence. Our government is right to look at preserving jobs and boosting the economy by bringing forward a planned programme of public works – building roads, schools and hospitals.

George Osborne’s plans to make cuts in public spending take the “bulk of the strain” in order to balance the fiscal books is unfair and unworkable.

Public services are essential to the health and wellbeing of people and the quality and stability of local communities.

We are already seeing cuts across the public sector as a result of the recession but Tory plans go much further and would have a devastating impact. They would widen the gap between the rich and poor and create more long-term social instability for all.

Public sector workers were never invited to party on excess- it’s time the Tories told their friends in the City - their party is over.

Dave Prentis is General Secretary of UNISON, the UK’s largest public sector union with 1.3m members

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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.