An Englishman’s Home is… beyond his wildest dreams

For some reason, going back into the mists of time, the British people have an obsession with private home ownership, even though most of us should technically never be able to afford one without borrowing. In Continental Europe, people are far more satisfied to rent, either from private landlords or more ‘trustworthy’ institutions – maybe there is some correlation between these statistics and the lower levels of stress and dissatisfaction there compared to the UK.

Nevertheless, we are where we are, and there is no going back on the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 however much we might want to reverse it (indeed, many of us may actually agree with it, being as it was extremely popular with the low paid, who for the first time had a stake in their council homes and some sense of freedom, however delusional). What we have now is a housing crisis coming at the worst possible time, during a dire economic climate caused by sub-prime mortgages themselves.

Tensions over housing and its’ availability have an effect on many areas of life, including levels of antagonism towards immigrants, the environment, growth, inequality in our cities, personal debt, and of course the Daily Mail and Daily Express front pages. We need to deal with this timebomb if we are to stem a rise in far-right politics and avoid a lost generation of young people. However, worryingly this government is going about it completely the wrong way.

Not only has it made squatting illegal when there are more empty properties than there are homeless people in this country, but it has appallingly placed a cap on housing benefit, effectively pricing the poor out of our capital city and entire swathes of the country – those parts of the country which have job vacancies. The government is slashing the public sector and saddling young people who go to university with ever higher debt, meaning their chances of even being able to look forward to putting down a deposit are negligible.

What our housing market needs is a Keynesian-style investment in house building and construction; not only would this lower house prices for first-time buyers, but it would also ease tensions in the community and increase demand in the economy generally, leading to growth and the beginning of the end of the deficit that the ConDems love to remind us about so much. As a bonus, it would even lead to a return of Location Location Location to our TV screens. Gordon Brown’s plan before the proverbial shit hit the fan in 2007 was to build 3 million new homes – we need this sort of commitment now, coupled with a healthy proliferation of 1940s-inspired New Towns (hopefully better designed than the likes of Milton Keynes) and more social housing. Today’s announcement from Cameron and Clegg about guaranteeing 95% mortgages may look like a repetition of exactly what went wrong in the first place, but should not be dismissed entirely, as it is the taxpayer, not the banks, helping first-time buyers, and there is real potential for an increase in demand as a result.

However it goes nowhere near far enough. If we can’t get people to fall out of love with the owner-occupier dream, then we need to build, build, build, spending more money in the short term to get us out of the mess in the long term.


That Old Chestnut

David Cameron has a nerve. Not only has he U-turned over his pledge in opposition to hold a referendum over the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union, but today he had the temerity to force Nicolas Sarkozy to back down and accept his presence at key Eurozone talks to try to deal with the Greek debt crisis on Wednesday.

Once again, only one year into the new government, a Conservative prime minister is becoming about as stable on Europe as Edwina Currie is on her feet. We all know deep down he is a staunch Euro-sceptic, so why doesn’t he have the guts to come out and be frank with the British people, and say that he would love us to turn our backs on our continental partners, but that he also loves us to lecture and patronise them on economic policy, despite the fact that UK growth is anaemic at best, and backwards at worst, thanks to his policies.

A referendum on EU membership now would of course be absurd, but having called for one in opposition, the PM should stick to his guns and create a disunited and discredited government, and do us all a favour by breaking up the coalition and triggering a general election. You can’t have your bun and eat it, and you can’t be half in, half out, of the EU – leaving the Eurozone (or more accurately, Germany) to do all the hard work and then turning up to talks this week to act as one of the key players while facing a referendum proposal at home from your own backbenchers is hypocritical and downright embarrassing for Britain.

It was Ed Miliband, incidentally, who called on Cameron to give up his trip Down Under and attend the meeting, therefore whether or not you agree that Cameron has a right to be there, it is clear that the Labour leader is ahead of the curve on this one, as he was on phone hacking and as he was at PMQs this week.

It might sound like a cheap shot from the comforts of opposition – and we all know Blair and Brown disagreed over the Euro – however it is clear that yet again the Tories are divided over Europe. Europhile or Europhobe, this is one of the few reliable constants of the European project.

Why Turn Blue When Just ‘Labour’ Will Do?

As Ed Miliband gathers opinions and considers the future policy direction of the Labour party as part of the Policy Review, there has been much debate recently about whether or not to pursue ‘Blue Labour’, as proposed by the academic and Labour peer Maurice Glasman. Blue Labour, a response to ‘Red Toryism’, aims to put co-operatives and the community at the heart of the lives of ordinary British people, and is a rebuttal of New Labour’s strangling embrace of neo-liberalism, which left swathes of grassroots Labour supporters feeling alienated and ignored by the party leadership.

Glasman has a point, for throughout the history of the ‘people’s party’ there has been a split between liberals, state socialists and those who favour co-operatives and more local organisation – many Labour MPs today are also members of the Co-operative Party, and since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century the Labour movement has been associated with local organisation and mobilisation.

Martin Pugh in his 2009 book “Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party” argues persuasively that the real dilemma for Labour through its history has not been attracting liberal support, but attracting hard-working but low-paid voters from the temptations of the Conservatives: many ordinary working class communities share the Tories’ patriotism; love of the armed forces (many of them have close relatives or friends serving in Afghanistan); desire for home ownership and a tough stance on law and order – why did so many vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, read the Daily Mail, and in a few cases drift to more extreme parties through fear of their jobs because of immigration and globalisation? Pugh stresses that when Labour came into being many voters were torn between it and the Tories because of these economic concerns, plus social beliefs like temperance or the role of the Church in schools.

Where Glasman takes the wrong path, in my view, is in his attempt to respond to Cameron’s Big Society by mimicking it and advocating a further retrenchment of the state, along with a return to a 1950s-style focus on the family, the flag, and feminism being almost unheard-of. That’s not ‘Blue Labour’, that’s just conservatism. If we as social democrats want to see equality of provision across the board, we need to expose the Big Society for what it is: a cover for cuts dreamt up by Steve Hilton when the Tories needed to be seen to be shedding the aura of Thatcherism.

If Labour is to win elections again without ditching our principles – to do so would be an insult to people like the families of those killed in Norway – we need to ‘re-connect with the grassroots,’ to use the spin-doctors jargon, by addressing, or at the very least appreciating, the legitimate concerns of the hard-working folk who keep the economy growing and keep money coming into the Exchequer. Instead of Big Society initiatives, we need to take the lead on key issues like housing, providing ample employment for deprived communities and young people generally, and not simply dismissing people’s concerns about migration and welfare dependency. That does not mean leaving the EU, saying we should only have British jobs for British workers, or undertaking humiliating fit-for-work tests like those currently going on under Iain Duncan Smith. It just means listening to those too well-off to be on benefits but on low wages, as well as staying true to  proud values like tolerance. If we go some way to pointing out these worries in opposition, whilst criticising the Con-Dems’ unfair cuts, the sought-after swing voters will follow, and we may just wake up to find ourselves in government again.

Gove Could Learn A Lesson or Two

The papers today report that Education Secretary Michael Gove is asking school leaders to recruit members of the “wider school community” to take over the job of teachers striking on Thursday, the implication being that it is better for parents and governors to take classes for one day then see the school close. Aside from the bad logic that if the main aim is keeping the school open so as not to incovenience working parents, then there won’t be any parents available to teach Henry VIII’s six wives, this policy demonstrates the Big Society is a means of undermining unionised labour as well as a cover for cuts. The only positive thing that could come of this ludicrous suggestion is that parents who do act as supply teacher on 30th June may get some idea of just how difficult a profession teaching really is.

Further to my blog a few weeks back, “Unite Behind the Unions”, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are still pandering to the right-wing media by warning the unions that striking would be unwise and counter-productive, while Tony Blair on the BBC’s Politics Show today refused to be drawn on any domestic policy issues, except to say that the unions are small ‘c’ conservatives who should learn to ‘modernise’, whatever that means. But then Blair never pretended to be on their side.

I do not dispute the fact that pensions need to be reformed in line with the ageing population and gender equality, while many in the private sector would be dancing all the way to the bank if they had pension schemes like those of some public servants; nevertheless what is going on at present smacks of the 1980s, and the threats of changes to union legislation mooted by Gove are deeply worrying.

Unite Behind The Unions

This week, the ominously-titled Business Secretary, Vince Cable, quickstepped down to Brighton to address the conference of the GMB Union, and calmly warned delegates, in no uncertain terms, that they can either lay back and take the savage cuts from the coalition government or face the consequences, which will take the form of more draconian anti-union legislation than even Maggie could dream of.

The coalition’s plans to pre-empt any upcoming Seasons of Discontent include only allowing official strike action to be valid where over 50 percent of members vote to withdraw their labour. This despite the fact that turnout in May’s AV referendum was only 42 percent; if the rules being drawn up for the unions were applied to that particular plebiscite we would now be going through that shambles of a campaign all over again. Perish the thought.

However over the last twelve months we have come to expect this sort of hypocritical posturing from the government, aimed at punishing the ordinary working man and woman for the 30-year poker game that took place in the City of London. We have even got used to the fact the the Liberal Democrats are happy to do all the dirty work while the Tories get on with the more important matters of screwing up the NHS, the Royal Mail, higher education and so on.

What is most worrying is the deafening silence coming from the Labour party over the last week.

It seems Ed Miliband, frightened by the response of the reactionary media after his speech at the March for the Alternative in Hyde Park earlier this year, has taken cover in the vain hope that all will blow over and the coalition will make itself so unpopular by 2015 that he will be swept to number 10 to save the day. It is not going to blow over. The Con-Dems will continue on their crusade against the public sector in the coming years, and can be forgiven for believing they have no effective opposition – when the only public figure speaking up for public sector workers is the Archbishop of Canterbury, you know Labour is in a bit of a pickle.

It’s time we got over the 1983, defeatist attitude and spoke up for ordinary working people who face falling wages, living standards and an uncertain future. This does not mean retreating into an unelectable, hard-left cocoon; it means not forgetting those who founded the Labour party in the first place over a century ago.

They Just Don’t Get It

I’ve now returned to Birmingham after a week in which the Coalition managed to look incompetent and shambolic as well as cruel. We’ve had Willetts admitting he is content to see poorer students having to settle for a degree at their local sixth form, rather than enjoying the full university experience; Norman Tebbit joining the near-univeral coalition against the NHS transformation; U-turns on defence spending and health to add to the growing list which includes school sports and buildings, forests, and even the Downing Street cat; and of course Nick Clegg. When he hasn’t been complaining that he is the nation’s ‘punchbag’ or facing criticism from his own son, he has been making some interesting comments about social mobility.

I am not going to slam the Deputy Prime Minister for having had a leg-up from his neighbour (a peer of the realm) in order to get an internship at a bank (it had to be a bank), because I challenge anyone reading this – assuming I have a readership – not to have seized the opportunity in the same way if they were in Nick’s position. A Labour party which wants social justice and equality of opportunity from birth should not be blaming someone for a background thay had no control over, and that even includes Cameron who had someone put a word in from Buck House. However, Clegg’s attempts at addressing the age-old problem of the ‘It’s who you know’ culture were embarrassing, coming at the same time this government is slashing Sure Start centres, EMA, univeristy budgets and allowing socially divisive ‘free’ schools to blossom up and down the country.

I spoke to people this week in the valleys who have Masters’ degrees who have spent over a year unemployed – young people with ambition, drive and what should be a promising career ahead of them. I overheard sixth form students on the bus complaining that they had not been accepted for any of their UCAS choices, despite the prediction of 4 As at A-level. I have personally had difficulty finding summer placements when I am not lucky enough to be able to work unpaid for six months in central London. Nick Clegg’s diagnosis was correct, but there is far more to it than setting an example to almost-bankrupt businesses by paying interns at Lib Dem HQ.

We need a new cultural shift in this country, brought about by government, where the disadvantaged are caught as soon as possible and at every stage of their lives are helped to gain the same opportunities as the better off. This should not involve positive discrimination or handouts, but should involve investment in our young people which other European countries manage while they bail out their neighbours, but we seem to think is unaffordable. A national internship scheme or national bursary programme, complementing investment in careers education (which at the moment is dire) to inform young people that they are just as talented and ambitious as the more privileged, and what opportunities are out there for the taking, is desperately needed. The underlying factors, such as affordable transport, need to be subsidised so someone who lives in the middle of nowhere with no ‘contacts’ can get work experience in a city near them.

There are important elections coming up in the devolved nations and local councils in England. Young people should be demanding better from the government and their local councils at the ballot box, and should express their dissatisfaction with the Coalition, which just doesn’t get it.

Pre-Thatcher media rules

Following the election of the new leader the Fabian Society has invited us to offer him some “miligrams” – special pieces of advice. Polly Toynbee and David Walker have taken up the challenge in their open letter to Ed in today’s Guardian. Among many other wise, considered and well-researched ideas they suggested “restricting multiple ownership [of the press] and disallow non-British taxpayers [from owning papers and TV channels]”.

And why not? As with many other aspects of the British economy the press has only been a “free market” since Thatcher’s reforms. Higher state involvement in other countries leads to higher quality journalism as there is less need for a “race to the bottom” – the bottom being low-brow sensationalism. Better funding, better research, more original material are all desperately to be desired in a highly-educated but largely tabloid-consuming country.

We’re all in thrall to the moguls, particularly Murdoch. Parties, policies and individuals can all be spun by one of the many branches of News Corporation, and it is chilling that there seems no way out.  But we are free to make our own laws. If he wants to go elsewhere, let him coerce ad terrorise the citizens of America or Australia, and welcome if they’ll have him. To buy up US enterprises he had to take American citizenship, but the Conservative government’s reforms allowed him, as a non-domicile tax exile, to seize a large fraction of our media outlets.

The Daily Mail was bought by the first Viscount Rothermere, and in a family history that could have come straight out of a Jonathan Coe novel, has been inherited by his son, grandson and great-grandson respectively. The family is related by marriage to the Thatchers, and surprisingly enough, is openly Tory supporting.  The Barclay twins, owners of the Telegraph, are notorious millionaire tax avoiders, and they have a zero-tolerance policy towards criticism. Like the Murdoch and Rothermere enterprises their business is characterised by hypocrisy and nepotism.

Whereas the Guardian, Private Eye and other left-wing, relatively independent publications are making huge losses every year. The founder of Wikileaks is subject to libelous claims and has little power to refute them.

Kicking up a fuss about nobility and millionaires in the cabinet is all very well, but the fourth estate is monopolised by them in a far less transparent sense. If “Red Ed” is the man I hope he is then heads, one day, will roll.