One step forward for student fees, two steps back for housing.

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This week’s Conservative Party conference began with Theresa May pledging action on student fees and housing, pitched as a generous offer to young voters — long considered her party’s achilles heel.

First was a pledge to ‘freeze’ university tuition fees at £9,250 a year, a change from the policy announced earlier in the year to allow universities to increase fees by £250 a year. Calling this a ‘freeze’ is clearly taking positive spin to the extremes, as in reality it’s hard to see this as anything other than a u-turn. In any case, it’s generally accepted that the actual annual rate of tuition fees has little impact on deterring university applications from any background, and given that the vast majority of graduates never pay back the full amount anyway, it’s a change that will only be financially beneficial to the highest earners. This is just a cosmetic change in an attempt to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to completely scrap tuition fees — a pledge that somewhat misses the point of the problem, which isn’t the existence of student loans (many people agree that students should pay something for further education and the subsequent increase in wages) but the steep repayments, and the seeming pointlessness of a system where loans are so high that almost no one can actually pay them off anyway.

But, what followed was the promise of a much more consequential (and welcome) change in policy — to increase the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000. When the new system of student loans was originally brought in by the Coalition Government in 2012, one of the key parts of the policy was that the repayment threshold would rise (to account for inflation), but ultimately this was scrapped and the repayment threshold has remained at £21,000 for five years. Theresa May’s decision to increase it is a welcome one, and one which will actually have an appreciable impact.

On housing on the other hand, Theresa May pledged an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, which offers 20 percent equity loans to buyers of new builds worth up to £600,000.

This is a misguided policy decision. It is indeed true that many young people struggle to get on the housing ladder. And the PM is correct to pick it out as an issue she should look to address. But the problem is, in reality, one of a low supply of affordable housing (particularly in certain areas) and high demand.

As anyone with any knowledge of basic economics knows, if you pump money into increasing demand or purchasing power, without any attempt to address a fundamental problem of lack of supply, all you will succeed in doing is increasing prices. This change is therefore unlikely to have any real benefit for those struggling to afford a first property.

Additionally, the fact that Help to Buy is limited to new build properties causes further problems, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to sell their properties (and devaluing them in the process) and slowing the market down even further.

It is true that radical reform of housing is required and neither of the two main parties seem to have the answers. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for rent controls, announced at last week’s Labour Party Conference, also wouldn’t help. Whilst capping rents would reduce costs for some, there would be a concurrent reduction in housing supply as it would effectively kill the buy-to-let industry.

I confess that I do not know the answer to the problems of the housing market, but new and radical ideas are clearly needed.

It seems unlikely that they will arrive in this Parliament, where the Government has decided to be cautious on account of their lack of a parliamentary majority and the herculean task of implementing Brexit.

But really, Theresa May has a very real opportunity to attempt the radical reform to help the ‘just about managing’ that she promised when the first stood on the steps of Number 10 last summer. No one else in the Conservative Party has the stomach to carry the can for Brexit; so although Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister looks insecure, in fact it is anything but. This gives her an enviable opportunity to attempt radical reform. It’s is generally expected that she will lose the next election (although given that nothing seems certain in politics these days, I wouldn’t count on it), so she’s got nothing to lose. And by attempting radical reform of housing (and public services too), May could arguably save her premiership, rather than letting it become completely defined by Brexit.

The ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum wasn’t a populist revolt in the style of Trump.

Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy's stagnant political system.
Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy’s stagnant political system.

Yesterday Italian voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum concerning the Italian political system and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to end the gridlock which has plagued it for many years. Despite opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be extremely close, the ‘No’ campaign won a decisive victory, with the reforms rejected by a margin of 59% to 41%, and Renzi subsequently set to tender his resignation later today. Following the result many were quick to place it in the same bracket as the result of UK’s EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. In short, as another victory for anti-establishment populists, and part of a growing trend across the world.

However, this analysis is deeply flawed, and far too simplistic. Whilst anti-establishment feeling was certainly a factor in the result, it was by no means the most important factor, and it is very difficult to equate this result with the likes of the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Rather than a populist revolt, the referendum result was simply a vote against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

During the referendum campaign, Renzi (who at that point figured that he had a pretty good chance of winning) announced that were he to lose the referendum then he would resign as Prime Minister. After this statement, Italy’s opposition parties united somewhat in an attempt to unseat Renzi.

This ‘rag bag’ group (as Renzi himself termed it) included the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the far-right Northern League, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, some members of Renzi’s Democratic Party campaigned against the reforms, with the Democratic Party being such a ‘big tent’ party that there were many who weren’t particularly enamoured with Renzi’s leadership.

The most interesting case is that of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2006 Berlusconi himself, then serving as Prime Minister, attempted constitutional reform. Similarly to yesterday’s referendum, the 2006 referendum aimed to streamline the Italian political system by giving more power to the Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s reform was defeated at the ballot box by 61.3% — 38.7%, incidentally a larger defeat that Renzi’s was yesterday. But what this proves is that Berlusconi himself has himself been strongly in favour of reform in the past, but his reasons for campaigning against this reform rested more on a desire to remove Renzi as Prime Minister than anything else.

Realistically, although in this referendum voters have overwhelmingly backed the side supported by the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, this is no guarantee that an actual election would go the same way. It was no surprise that following the referendum, the centre-right party, Forza Italia, said that they didn’t believe an election should be called, and that they though that the next Prime Minister should come from Renzi’s Democratic Party. The truth is that there is no way that the likes of the Five Star Movement, Northern League, and Forza Italia would be able to work together in Government, and therefore they would not have been able to combine to defeat Renzi in an actual election. However, when Renzi turned the referendum into a confidence vote on his leadership, he enabled an alliance between all opposition parties, and his fate was settled. At a time when Renzi’s popularity was hardly through the roof, in large part because of Italy’s economic woes, it was undeniably stupid for Renzi to stake his future on the referendum.

In addition, it is incorrect that the referendum was purely an expression of anti-establishment feeling. Yes, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were one of the main opponents of the constitutional reform, and as a result anti-establishment feeling certainly played a part, however it was not as significant as many have claimed. For a start, look at how many members of the supposed ‘establishment’ supported the campaign against the proposed reforms. Silvio Berlusconi and his establishment centre-right party, Forza Italia, have already been mentioned, but there was also former Prime Minister Mario Monti as well as a fair few senior members of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. Although the establishment Five Star Movement were prominent during the campaign, it was not a campaign where it was simply establishment versus anti-establishment — as was the case during the US Presidential Campaign. The sheer number of establishment figures on the ‘No’ side suitably demonstrates this. In addition, it must be remembered that Renzi himself was never really considered a particularly establishment figure. He came to power as Prime Minister from the relatively obscure position of Mayor of Florence, and he has taken on a somewhat anti-establishment persona during his time as Prime Minister (with a vision of a government which could wipe out the corruption which had plagued Italian politics for decades), particularly during this referendum campaign. He alluded to Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric during the campaign when he described the Italian political system as a ‘swamp’ where he would be unable to remain if he didn’t pass the proposed reforms. Given the dramatic change that Renzi wanted the Italian political system to undergo, it is perhaps more apt to describe him as anti-establishment than his opponents during the referendum.

No, rather than a vote against the establishment, this was a vote against Renzi himself. Although he came to power with promises of constitutional change, he also promised an end to the economic malaise that has afflicted Italy for many years. The referendum result is more to do with Italy’s continuing economic difficulties than anything else. Renzi perhaps overestimated Italy’s desire for constitutional change ahead of economic progress, and sorely paid the price. For most Italians, rather than constitutional change their priorities were seeing a return to a thriving economy and economic growth, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of big banks. Renzi’s failure to deliver in these areas made him considerably unpopular and so when he staked his future on the referendum result, the voters saw their chance.

Add to this the complex nature of the reform, very few people understood exactly what it was that was being asked, and there were even reports that start-ups were charging $150 an hour for classes explaining the referendum question. Contrary to what is often claimed, most who vote are not keen to vote in favour of something they don’t fully understand. With the complex nature of the constitutional reform, is was unsurprising that most were keener to keep the status quo, because at least then they know exactly where they stand.

Rather than a vote for anti-establishment politics, this was a vote against Renzi, pure and simple. Although Renzi has arguably done some good things, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to gain the continued confidence of the Italian people, although his statement yesterday suggests that he does not intend to retire from politics and could yet seek to return as Prime Minister in the near future. Although Renzi served as Prime Minister for under three years, he is still the fourth-longest serving PM in almost thirty years, which tells you basically all you need to know about Italy’s infamously volatile politics. Bearing this in mind, a political return for Renzi in the future is by no means out of the question, and in fact it would not be at all surprising.

Arron Banks attempts to become the UK’s Donald Trump.

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Arron Banks (left) with Nigel Farage. 

At the weekend Nigel Farage and his group of hangers-on travelled to New York to visit President-elect Donald Trump. Among the group was millionaire UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks. Clearly the visit had some effect upon him because he has since announced his plans to launch a new political party solely dedicated to ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster.

Banks has suggested that he will be funding a new movement which will look to stand candidates against 200 MPs deemed to be the “worst, most corrupt MPs”. His aim is to harness the ‘anti-establishment sentiment’ which he believes is sweeping through world politics, and which has led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

The idea is modelled somewhat upon the candidacy of Martin Bell, a BBC journalist who stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in the 1997 General Election, ultimately winning his seat of Tatton. Incidentally Hamilton is now, like Banks, a member of UKIP.

Banks has suggested that the targets will be chosen by some form of direct democracy, however he does seem to have some ideas about who he would like to get rid of. He has said that he would rate MPs by undesirability with “Keith Vaz at number one”, whilst a picture released on the Leave.EU twitter page also suggests prominent Remain campaigners Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, and David Lammy as targets. One would assume that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, for whom Banks doesn’t conceal his contempt, would also be a target for the new party.

Banks’ new party won’t take party positions in the traditional sense, however he has suggested some causes that they would likely support, including: “forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.”

Now I get that Banks wants to harness some of the hateful rhetoric that came from the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and bring it into UK politics. However, I have some questions about how he thinks he can achieve this.

Firstly, Banks’ attempt to unseat MPs is modelled somewhat on the one-term independent candidacy of Martin Bell, and its success in unseating Neil Hamilton in 1997. Whilst Bell was successful in unseating Hamilton and won the seat with a majority of 11,077, this was in part because of a plan masterminded by Alastair Campbell where he arranged for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates for Tatton so as not to split the anti-Hamilton vote. Banks wouldn’t have this advantage. In most seats he’d face the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and UKIP; whilst in some he may also face the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru — therefore splitting the vote even further. Therefore, the likelihood of one of his candidates being successful in gaining election is very, very low.

Secondly, Banks suggests he wants to field, “a great candidate, a military guy, doctor, someone who has done something with their life.” However, the chances of him finding 200 candidates that fit this description, and who are also willing to stand on a platform created by someone like Banks (who was a key part of the racist Leave.EU campaign), seem very slim to me. What’s more, Bank’s suggests an upper age limit of forty for MPs. Therefore, quite how he expects to find 200 candidates with amazing life experience, who are also under forty, and are also willing to stand on a platform created by him, is beyond me. Overall, the likelihood of him finding the personnel to complete this ridiculous pet project seems to be very slim indeed.

Thirdly, this project by Banks is an attempt to ride the populist wave from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, Theresa May still insists that the next general election won’t be until 2020, by which time Brexit will be four years in the past and Donald Trump will be struggling to be re-elected. Populism in politics seems to be something which moves extremely quickly, and who knows what its status will be in four years time. My guess is that voters will have long grown tired of the non-solutions offered by populist politicians.

Finally, some of the suggestions which Banks has put forward as issues which his new party might support just don’t seem workable to me. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the proposal of an upper age limit of forty for MPs, but there is also the insistence that each MP should be limited to just two terms in the House of Commons. Although this might sound good when he says it too himself, it just wouldn’t work. With Parliamentary terms being a maximum of five years long, we would never have a Prime Minister with more than ten years experience as an MP — this would not be good for governance in this country. Our last Prime Minister, David Cameron, took office as PM after serving as an MP for nine years. Most of his predecessors had served for much longer: Gordon Brown for twenty-four years, Tony Blair for fourteen years, John Major for twenty-one years, and Margaret Thatcher for twenty years; and the list goes on. I am confident that none of these people could have done the job of Prime Minister after less than two terms as an MP, and I don’t think that the British public would have let them do the job of Prime Minister without this experience. What’s more, I think that it is extremely unlikely that someone could come in with no experience of the workings of Parliament and simply become Prime Minister. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s lack of political experience being a virtue, there have been reports that President Obama is having to spend extra sessions with Trump before the inauguration because his knowledge of government is so lacking. Realistically, to ask someone with no knowledge to do the job of Prime Minister straightaway seems a non-starter to me.

Ultimately, this is pretty typical from Banks, a ridiculous idea attempting to get some publicity and massage his ego — all whilst bringing the likes of Nigel Farage and himself further into the limelight than anyone wants them to be. In an entertaining article from earlier today, Iain Martin describes Banks’ new party as, “The Stupid Party”. That seems like a pretty good name to me.