Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

David Cameron's bold entry into the debate about housing this week reminds one of how strange it is that housing has spent such a long time in the second division of politics. For post-1945 Labour, council housing was the key to getting the right votes in the right places (e. g. , Herbert Morrison's desire to 'build the Tories out of London'). In the 1950s Harold Macmillan headed Labour off simply by trumping them and promising to build 300,000 council houses a year. Then Mrs Thatcher changed the politics of it all with council house sales and the freeing of the rented sector. Suddenly the upper working class had been helped in a tangible and permanent way. Ever since then it has been impossible for any politician to gainsay the desire for home ownership or to re-impose rent control. Then the independence of the Bank of England granted by Gordon Brown meant that politicians could no longer play with the mortgage rate for electoral purposes. So they more or less fell silent. Housing deserves to become an issue once more, though, for the reasons that Mr Cameron has raised. The first rung of the 'housing ladder' now looks like one of those fire escapes which stop an unclimbable distance from the ground. Demand is huge, and supply is rigidly small, so price is enormous. A new house is seen, by people who live near it, as a bad thing, with the result that, too often, it is -- being mean, ugly and adding a new burden to local infrastructure without bringing a compensatory social, aesthetic or financial benefit. It is chiefly in housing that the old problem of the 'Two Nations' is growing worse. The solution lies somewhere in providing more of what people actually want -- the suburban ideal of a garden and a garage -- in a way that gives more revenue to the local authorities in which this takes place and in which better infrastructure is created as a reward for new building. It is all explained in Policy Exchange's brilliant pamphlet Better Homes, Greener Cities. The short-term politics of Mr Cameron's approach is very dangerous, because he will be inundated with protests from his party's supporters in his safest seats, but in the end a party always does better to identify with the poor but aspirant than with those who benefit from keeping those aspirations down.

The government seeks a 'consensus' with other parties about how to reform the rules for party funding. Of course it does, and of course the other parties want one too. This is proof of Adam Smith's dictum that no two men of the same trade are ever met together without conspiring against the public. If Tory, Labour and Liberals can reach consensus for caps on private donations and their replacement with state funding, they will be well pleased. Once the principle is conceded, the extent of funding will be easy to increase from time to time when public and press are not looking. Party bureaucrats will then become seriously important figures in the state because their pay and job security will be assured, and they will be able to carve up power over public appointments and so on with their opposite numbers in other parties with almost no interference from impertinent voters. If you want to see how this works, look at the European Parliament, where wellfunded international parties provide lifelong prosperity to their MEPs and officials, and the separation of electors and elected is almost complete. …

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