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Pete Hoskin

Peter Hoskin: Labour are up to something major on property ownership - the Tories should strike back hard

If 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!

Labour conference homepage

Yet, 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.

So 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.

But 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.

Oh 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.


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