you go down to the Labour
website today, you’re sure of a minor surprise. The party has put up a
special page, before you get to their main site, highlighting the ‘Rebuilding
Britain’ theme of their conference in Manchester. The background is a punkishly
off-kilter Union Jack, in magenta and azure instead of simple red and blue. The
foreground is the image of a house with two paragraphs of text beside it. The
words “building 100,000 more affordable homes” and “stamp duty holiday” have
been picked out in bold. Look, look — these are our policies!
as trivial as it seems, it is this web-page that sums up the most important aspect
of the Labour conference so far: how Ed Miliband’s party is straying on to territory
usually occupied by the Conservatives. And I don’t just have the upbeat,
post-Olympics patriotism in mind, either. It’s more the fact that two of their main
policies revolve around property ownership. The presentation of the conference
itself also revolves around property ownership. The message that Labour wants
to spread is that they will help shunt you onto the housing ladder.
is this Mr Miliband’s continuation of that Thatcher-era ideal, the
“property-owning democracy”? In some ways, yes. After a financial crisis
brought about, in part, by the rush towards home ownership — and at a time when
the housing market is less
than propitious for first-time buyers — Labour might have stepped back from
the politics of the property ladder completely. But instead they have pushed on
with it, suggesting that there’s more New Labour about Mili Labour than the
latter sometimes cares to admit.
Eds Miliband and Balls would probably also argue that there’s nothing
necessarily Thatcherite — nor, indeed, right-wing — about property ownership. Their
policy to build 100,000 affordable homes, they might say, is traditionally left-wing
in both its means (spending the £billions expected from the sale of mobile
phone networks, rather than putting the money towards deficit reduction) and its
ends (jobs for manual workers). But they could go further than that, too. As
the academics Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson have explained both
succinctly and insightfully, the notion of a “property-owning democracy” is
wrapped up with Mr Miliband’s new guiding philosophy, “Predistribution”. In
this sense — the sense outlined within James Meade’s 1964 book Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of
Property — property ownership includes, but also stretches beyond, housing
policy. The idea is that, to tackle inequality, the state must be active in
both diluting the capital held by the wealthy and ensuring that the disadvantaged
have their own slice of capital in the economy.
dear, this column is starting to read like a university essay, for which I am
deeply apologetic. It’s just that, under cover of words such as “predistribution”,
something politically significant is happening. It’s similar to what some
academics believe James Meade was up to when he wrote about “property-owning
democracy” in the first place: taking an ideal that had been made famous by the
conservative politician Noel Skelton, in a series of articles for The Spectator, and subverting it away
from the Right. The approach was previewed in an
article by Jon Cruddas — now in charge of Labour’s policy review — two
years ago. “The [Thatcherite] promise of a ‘property-owning
democracy’ created more home ownership,” he wrote, “but no investment for
future generations.” His solution was “a crusade to build homes and
reform the housing markets”.
Yet, in base political terms, the target
of Mr Cruddas’s policies isn’t Margaret Thatcher, nor indeed Noel Skelton, but
the current Conservative leadership. While it’s true that the Coalition is
unceasingly eager to build more houses, David Cameron and George Osborne are
also evangelical about less statist policies such as the Right to Buy. And they
see it through the same prism as Tory strategists did in the Eighties: that
stepping aside, and allowing people the deeds to their own homes, is a good way
to pollinate society with Conservative values. But now a Labour Opposition is contesting
this same patch of soil. They are saying to young and aspirational people that
ownership comes from massive public spending which comes from the state. This
is how they want to create a new generation of Labour voters.
Messrs Cameron and Osborne need to
strike back against this argument, quick and hard. But how? The trouble is that
this is something bigger than housing policy. What Labour are doing is telling
a very attractive story, which ends with houses for young people and jobs for
manual workers, as a proxy for their entire economic policy. Growth, jobs, homes,
families, all will come from more and more spending. Vote Miliband.
Yet this is precisely why the
Conservatives should welcome Labour’s new narrative, as it provides them with
an opportunity to tell a grand story of their own. For the past two years, the
Tory leadership has struggled to defend deficit reduction in anything but the
driest terms. It has mostly been about market reaction and interest rates and tough
decisions. But now that Ed Miliband is starting to fight — really fight — for
the votes of aspirational voters, they are obliged to fight back in kind. What
is it about deficit reduction that will help young prospective homeowners? Can
we count its benefits in the spending that will be done in future, and the taxes that will be cut? Will growth bring houses, more so than the other way around?
These are the questions that need answering in next week’s speeches, and without
any reference to damn gilt yields.
The strange thing is that, by
straying onto traditional Conservative territory, the Labour Party may have
given the Tories greater cause to stray in the opposite direction — and tell a gut-wrenching,
human story about the public finances. I didn’t think that Mr Miliband’s Manchester
bash would be particularly significant, but it has been. It has helped frame
the argument for Birmingham and beyond.