When David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in town on two successive days you know that the election campaign is serious.
The battle for St Ives, the most southerly constituency in Britain stretching round from the Lizard to Land’s End and then out to the Isles of Scilly, is very close. And it is part of a wider struggle in Cornwall and the South West between the two coalition partners (though Labour does have seats in Exeter and Plymouth and hopes of more) that could have a big impact on the result next week. It’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win for an overall majority and one the Lib Dems must hold if they are to have a hope of influence in the next parliament.
St Ives is one of three Lib Dem seats in Cornwall, and 14 in the wider South West, that could be vulnerable. The Western Morning News reported on Wednesday that the Tories are now even targeting Yeovil (held by David Laws but former constituency of Paddy Ashdown) in a sign of rising confidence in the blue camp.
Here’s a number that should embolden whoever wins the election: 54% of voters support government borrowing to fund more affordable homes.
A MORI opinion poll for the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) found that just 21% would oppose borrowing to fund affordable housing for sale or rent and 24% neither support not oppose it. Support was unsurprisingly strongest among renters (60 per cent) and Londoners (66 per cent).
The results are in line with a series of other recent polls showing a significant shift in public attitudes to housebuilding. However, the election campaign seems so fixed that it’s difficult to imagine any of the major parties trying to win majority support by advocating a policy that actually has it. It would simply play into the Conservative narrative that it was not the banks but the last Labour government that caused the economic crisis by borrowing too much.
So is housing finally cutting through as an issue at this election? Yesterday has convinced me that it is.
The day started with housing featuring as the election issue of the day on Today on Radio 4 – good news in itself but just an indication of the programme’s agenda. The report by John Humphrys was about Shepherd’s Bush and how it’s changed from the setting for Steptoe & Son to a place where a couple on a joint income of over £100,000 cannot afford a deposit, let alone a home, and foreign investors are buying new apartments eight at a time.
An interview with Brandon Lewis and Emma Reynolds followed (listen again here at about 8.30). But it quickly degenerated into bald men squabbling over a comb mode as they traded statistics about who has the worst record in government. Lewis trotted out the usual lines about Help to Buy while Reynolds repeated her better ones about Lyons. Maybe I’ve heard it too many times before, maybe they’ve said the same thing too many times before, but it hardly seemed like housing was at the centre of the election. Depressingly, the focus was entirely on first-time buyers. They do face huge problems but this is an indication I think that the main parties still see home ownership as the issue on which elections are won and lost. It’s a sense of aspiration, rather than housing as such, that is the real issue.
That was enough to lower my expectations for my local hustings. BBC Cornwall is organising them across the county and last night it was the turn of St Ives. The Lib Dems held off the Conservatives by just 1,700 votes in 2010 and it’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win to form an overall majority.
What could housing expect from a government influenced by parties other than the Conservatives and Labour? Part 1: the Lib Dems.
Assuming the polls are right and there will be another hung parliament, any of the other five parties who took part in the first TV debate could have an influence. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would seek concessions for Scotland and Wales while demanding less austerity from a Labour government, especially on welfare [though later the SNP reached out to the rest of the UK with a call for 100,000 affordable homes]. However, most housing issues are devolved from Westminster, so I’ll concentrate in this two-part blog on the other three parties. Power may matter a lot more than policies, there are some hints in the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos of what might offer common ground with one of the bigger parties.
So first, the Lib Dems. Assuming enough of them keep their seats, they could be a coalition partner (or a less formal supporter) for either a Tory or Labour government and they are the only party with a track record in coalition at Westminster.
So does the ‘buccaneering’ Conservative plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants stack up?
I was on 5 Live earlier talking about the big idea in today’s Tory manifestoand as usual only got to say half of what I wanted to say. The package beforehand was interesting: tenants from a housing association estate in the Old Kent Road were enthusiastic; but people on an estate in Dartford where the homes were long ago sold off could see the consequences as housing benefit ends up going to private landlords.
I argued that it’s a great idea in theory: if you can help people buy their own home and have enough money to build replacements, why not do it? In practice though, we’ve never come close to achieving this. The government promised one for one replacement for council homes sold in 2012 but the rate so far is one new home started for every 11 sold.
Extending the right to buy to housing associations was meant to be part of the original right to buy in the 1980s but dropped because it was too expensive and because so many associations are charities who have to use their assets for charitable purposes. If Margaret Thatcher couldn’t make it work then, how will David Cameron make it work now? If it’s such a great idea in England, why is Scotland ending the right to buy in 2016 and Wales consulting on doing the same?
If you’re looking for anything new on housing in the Labour manifesto you’re going to have to search very hard for it.
The party’s priorities were clearly elsewhere in the document launched this morning and the housing sections are largely rehashes of Labour’s response to the Lyons Review and of previous statements on social security.
Housing gets a mention in the introduction but only in relation to housebuilding and home ownership:
‘We are not building the homes we need. Our sons and daughters have been shut out of the housing market and too often they are forced to leave the communities where they were brought up.’
When exactly are the Conservatives playing at with their election campaign? A relentlessly disciplined and on message electoral machine has instead looked erratic and directionless. Personal attacks on Ed Miliband have transformed him from a weird nerd into a ruthless dude. Even the right-wing press that is meant to sing to the Tory tune sounds like it has forgotten the words.
I could be completely wrong about all of this of course. There are still 25 days to go till polling day: the UKIP vote could collapse in enough seats the see the Tories home: we could end up being brainwashed rather than bored by the endless repetition of ‘long-term economic plan’ and ‘hardworking families’; Lynton Crosby is a genius, the cross-over will come and the polls could be as wrong as they were in 1992.
For the moment though things seem to keep going wrong for the party that ruled Britain for most of the 20th century but hasn’t won a majority for 23 years. Just as at the last election, the Conservatives seem unable to win more than a third of the vote. For me, this is about more than just UKIP splitting the vote. A bit like with Labour in the 1980s, I’m not clear what the Tories stand for any more.