Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.
Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.
The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.
Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.
Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.
Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.
Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.
What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.
The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.