When dull men take drastic measures

Turn on the radio, tune in to BBC News 24, drop in, if you must, to an internet cafe, but whatever you do, stay abreast of events, because anything might happen this weekend and, most intriguingly, the consequences flowing from whatever might happen are not easy to discern.

There is no point in being falsely modest, but it was more than a week ago in the Commons tearoom, when talking with Crock of Newsnight, that I posited the theory that Darling might be Howe. My logic was simple. The knife is best wielded not by an hysteric like Heseltine or Mandelson, but by a plodder. When dull men are forced to take drastic measures, then the audience takes note. If Darling were to tour the studios carefully detailing Brown’s myriad flaws, the game would be up for the PM.

Which, of course, is the last thing any right-thinking Tory wants. We want an election and we want it now, obviously, but we would prefer to contest it against Brown because even one of Sir Peter Viggers’s ducks would fancy its chances against the present incumbent. But it is vital that Darling stay in situ next door. If Brown sacrifices Darling for Balls, then even the yellowest-belly Blairite would have to act, and it would presage a change of curtains for Brown. DC understands this, which is why he has kept his criticisms so general. He talks of fripperies and barbecues rather than naming and shaming individuals.

Little George Osborne, once again, has been less supple. His comments about Darling being a lame-duck chancellor were as unhelpful as they were hypocritical. “Where is Ken when we need him?” demanded the cognoscenti, a question asked on a pretty much weekly basis since the Fat Man’s supposed return.

Even if Darling survives the reshuffle on Friday, we still have Sunday to negotiate. There is such a real possibility that Labour might fall behind “Others” in the European vote that some of our more strategic thinkers are wondering if it is too late to redirect a block of our voters towards Labour to spare them this humiliation. Finish fourth in Europe, they argue, and Brown would be toast. Except, if he has reshuffled his pack by then, the options might be limited. If in the current feverish climate changing your expenses claim is considered poor form, imagine how the public would react to someone accepting a cabinet post on Friday, sitting in front of the telly on Sunday, and mounting a leadership challenge on Monday.

This is why I have counselled against any tactical voting to shore up the Labour vote in the hope the weekend pans out thus:

a) Labour does appallingly, but slightly better than expected, in the county council elections.

b) A relieved Brown does not detonate “explosive reshuffle” but merely dispenses with Smith and Hoon.

c) A relieved cabinet expresses loyalty.

d) Euro election finishes with Tories 42 per cent, Others 29 per cent, Lib Dems 15 per cent, Labour 14 per cent.

e) So many of Brown’s enemies within his party flock forward to announce they will stand down at the next election that the PM, in a moment of spite, calls that election.

f) The European result is repeated nationally.

Unlikely, perhaps, but we live in unlikely times.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.