What’s the one thing that affects our personal wellbeing, our personal wealth and our personal future more than any other? And what do you think might happen to any government that threatens it?
The only iron law in politics is there are no iron laws. Westminster’s wisest sages used to say no government could win a general election in a recession. But then John Major up-ended that conventional wisdom in 1992. Michael Heseltine, his deputy prime minister, used to argue that no government presiding over steady growth with real incomes rising could lose. But four years of the feelgood factor couldn’t prevent Tory defeat in 1997. Looking more broadly, neither winning a war nor the World Cup is any guarantee of success at the polls. Churchill steered us to victory in the Second World War but lost at the polls in 1945, while Harold Wilson revelled in England’s 1966 triumph but lost the next election.
So it’s a brave, or foolhardy, man who tries to assert there is a general rule that governs political fortunes when history says that politics, like the weather, or Aberdeen’s cup performance, is unpredictable. But let me try.
The really big changes in political fortunes are driven by housing. Although policies in areas, from childcare to pensions loom large at certain points, housing is a constant in every citizen’s life, throughout their life.
The success of the Attlee government in 1945 was built on its promise of housing for the war generation, the 13 years of Tory rule from 1951 were secured by Macmillan’s housebuilding drive and the growth of home ownership. Extending ownership to council tenants was the defining Thatcher policy in 1979. The experience of negative equity in the nineties was fundamental to helping Labour to victory in 1997 and, since then, Gordon Brown has built his reputation on the promise of “no return to boom and bust”.
Housing originally mattered because it was about securing the most basic need of all. Then it rose in importance because homes became our principal investment – our security for old age and our nest egg for the next generation. Over the past 10 years, housing has become more important still because homes have been not just a means of saving but also an engine for spending.
The feelgood factor that helped Labour surf to victory in 2001 and 2005 was generated in large part by the upward movement in house prices. The equity released from our homes kept the economy on an upswing. It sustained higher consumer spending. And it meant there was enough left over to pay for the government’s own spending.
As any central banker will tell you, house prices are a matter of opinion but debt is a fact.
But, as any central banker will tell you, house prices are a matter of opinion but debt is a fact. And this government’s reliance on debt – its own massive borrowing and its spending fuelled by our collective borrowing – is one of the most worrying economic facts we have to contend with.
If our lot had been in charge over the past 10 years we wouldn’t have got into this mess; we wouldn’t have spent and borrowed so profligately; we would have fixed the roof while the sun was shining.
Ah yes, you may say, but what would we do now? Well we recognise that flexibility is required to deal with the consequences of the credit crunch. That is why David Cameron has argued that we should look at the rules governing banks’ capital requirements. And George Osborne has suggested we consider looking at whether capital requirements could alter during an economic cycle to control credit better in times of boom and expend it in times of contraction.
More immediately, George has suggested a collateral swap programme supported by the Treasury, allowing banks to swap illiquid mortgage-backed securities for liquid government bonds. He’s outlined some of the guarantees that would have to be in place to make the swap work and, crucially, protect the taxpayer. But he realises that it’s not enough simply to deprecate the mess created by this government – we have to have a plan to clear it up.
The outlook over the next 12 months is pretty bleak, with lenders outlining just how limited their room for manoeuvre is. So we have the double whammy of house prices falling but, according to the Halifax last week, first-time buyers are at their lowest level since the seventies. It’s quite something to lower prices and then make goods less affordable, but that’s what this government’s handling of the credit crunch has done to housing. It’s very chilly out there.
So what does this mean for the government? Well, there are no iron laws in politics certainly, but there are in management. One of the most durable is the Peter Principle, which states that over time, in an organisation, an individual will rise to the point just above his level of competence. And my fear is that we now have a whole government organised on that principle.
Michael Gove is shadow minister for housing