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.

Can Emmanuel Macron win the French Presidency?

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Emmanuel Macron announces his candidacy for President of France on Wednesday. 

In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.

However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.

Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).

It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.

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Macron in his previous role as Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

 

Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.

Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.

One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.

The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.

What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.

During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.

Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.

Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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Macron’s road to the Presidency will be a tough one, but one which is far from impossible. 

Donald Trump’s first staff appointments say a lot about the direction that his Presidency will take.

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Reince Priebus (right) has been appointed as the new White House Chief of Staff, whilst Stephen Bannon (left) has been appointed Chief Strategist. 

Yesterday, President-elect Donald J. Trump announced his first staff appointments since his election victory, appointing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, and appointing Stephen Bannon as his Chief Strategist. These two were both thought to be strongly in the running for a position in the Trump administration and therefore their appointment is not much of a surprise, however, that Trump chose them to fulfil these roles does suggest a fair bit about the direction that his Presidency will take.

Throughout the election campaign, Trump spoke of his disdain for Washington insiders, and pledged that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests and D.C. insiders. However, the appointment of Reince Priebus to such a key position flies straight in the face of this. Priebus is arguably the ultimate Washington (or at least GOP) insider. He has been chair of the RNC since 2011, and previously was RNC general counsel and chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, with his work for the GOP in Wisconsin meaning he has strong connections with the likes of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given Trump’s rhetoric around ‘draining the swamp’ of political insiders, you would have thought that the selection of Priebus to such a key role would have provoked anger amongst some of Trump’s most keen supporters — and you would be correct. However, the selection of Priebus could well have done a fair amount the placate those parts of the GOP who are extremely wary about the prospect of a Trump Presidency, given the extreme rhetoric that characterised his campaign. The feeling amongst moderate Republicans may well be that Priebus will add some moderation into Trump’s thinking, whilst his excellent relationships with Congressional leadership should help the Trump administration get their legislation through Congress — as long as it isn’t too extreme that is. Some have likened his role to that of Andy Card who served as White House Chief of Staff for five years during the George W. Bush administration.

Whilst he will have disappointed some of his most keen supporters with the hiring of party insider Priebus as Chief of Staff, Trump then hired the opposite for the role of Chief Strategist: Steve Bannon. Bannon is the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative news website, which aligns with the extreme ‘alt-right’ in much of its coverage. The appointment of Bannon is likely to worry much of the Republican establishment as he is an avowed enemy of Paul Ryan, and has led a campaign through Breitbart to unseat him as Speaker of the House. In addition, and very worryingly, he has long been criticised for pandering to white supremacism and the ‘alt-right’.

Media coverage of Bannon’s appointment has variously described him as being along the lines of a ‘right-wing provocateur’, and ‘anti-establishment populist’. Whilst these descriptions are both true, they don’t go far enough by any means. Following news of the appointment, John Weaver tweeted, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.” Weaver is an experienced Republican strategist who held key roles on John Kasich campaign for the Presidency, and on John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008, so not simply a diehard liberal with a trivial complaint — Bannon genuinely is an extreme right-winger. This is why his appointment to Trump’s White House team has got people so worried.

Many people (in particular many Republicans) have brushed off the appointment of Bannon, and suggested that as Priebus technically holds the number one role on the White House staff, Bannon won’t hold much influence over policy. However, this is likely to be wrong. To go back to the comparison of Priebus with Andy Card, at the same time that Card was Chief of Staff, Karl Rove served as ‘Senior Advisor to the President’. This role was effectively the same as the Chief Strategist role which Bannon now fills. Everyone knows that although Card served as Bush’s gatekeeper, it was Karl Rove who had significantly more influence on the policy direction of the Bush administration. Although the appointment of Priebus and Bannon was accompanied by a description of the two as ‘equals’, don’t be surprised if Bannon has considerably more influence on policy direction than Priebus, with Priebus included more for his links with Congressional Republicans (which can help get Trump’s policy through Congress) than anything else.

Ultimately, the appointment of both Priebus and Bannon looks to be an attempt by Trump to straddle the divide between the Republican establishment and the populist wave which took him into the White House. This balancing act was evident this weekend as Trump alternated between tweeting about the constructive conversations that he’d had with GOP elders like John Kasich and Mitt Romney, and railing against the election coverage of the New York Times.

What side of the dividing line his policy will fall on is perhaps more uncertain.

However, the fact that he has chosen to appoint Bannon to a White House position at all, suggests that despite the more moderate notes which he has been trying to hit in recent days, Trump intends to pursue at least some of the right-wing populist policies which took him into the White House, perhaps even some of the most extreme ones. The appointment of Bannon should worry everyone, the world over.