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UK's Cameron Casts Conservatives as 'the Party of Working People' With Controversial Housing Pledge

The Tories aren't the only ones to venture onto their opponents' traditional turf with their election manifesto — Labour used its own launch to hammer the message of "fiscal responsibility."
April 14, 2015, 6:15pm
Image via AP

British Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to cast the Conservatives as the defenders of "working people" as he launched their election manifesto today, offering a "good life for those willing to try" if the party is voted back into power on May 7.

Manifesto pledges include increasing spending on the National Health Service (NHS), eliminating Britain's financial deficit, and creating three million new apprenticeships. The party has also promised a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union in 2017.

But dominating the headlines was a controversial housing policy which harks back to the times of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, Thatcher's government introduced the right-to-buy scheme, under which people living in social housing could buy their homes at a reduced price.

Related: UK Authorities Sold Off Social Housing at a Discount — Now They Are Buying It Back at a Loss. Read more here.

Now Cameron wants to extend the scheme to tenants of housing associations, which are independent, not-for-profit organizations that provide social housing. "It is unfair that they should miss out on a right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes," states the manifesto. The extension would allow 1.3 million housing association tenants the right to buy their homes, with the initiative funded by requiring local authorities to "manage their housing assets more efficiently, with the most expensive properties sold off and replaced as they fall vacant," it declares.

The — David Cameron (@David_Cameron)April 14, 2015

Yet critics have branded the initiative as expensive and ineffective in solving Britain's housing crisis. Ruth Davison, policy chief at the National Housing Federation, an organization that represents housing associations, said in a statement: "We fully support the aspiration of home ownership but extending right-to-buy to housing associations is the wrong solution to our housing crisis.

"Following 40 years of successive governments' failure to build the homes the country needs, soaring rents and house prices and the biggest baby boom since the 1950s, ensuring that there enough homes today and tomorrow must be our nation's top priority."

The housing charity Shelter also denounced the initiative. "Extending the scheme to housing associations may benefit a lucky few, but does little to help the millions of private renters struggling to cope with sky high housing costs and instability. And, with the current track record, will mean there's even fewer affordable homes left for future generations," said its chief executive Campbell Robb.

"At a time when more and more people are struggling to find an affordable place to live, the next government's priority has to be building more affordable homes, not selling off the few we have left."

John Healey, former housing minister of the Labour Party, the main political opposition, declared the pledge as a "cheap Thatcher tribute act," while the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives' coalition partner, has raised concern over its cost: "Independent estimates suggest this could cost at least £5.8 billion ($8.6bn), nowhere near covered by forcing councils to sell off yet more housing stock, as the Conservatives suggest," said spokesman Brian Paddick.

The image Cameron sought to present with his pledge to defend Britain's workers is one perhaps more widely associated with the left-wing Labour Party. Seizing upon the phrase, Labour leader Ed Miliband, said: "The reality about the Conservatives is that they are the party not of working people, from first to last and always, they are the party of the richest in our society and that is absolutely the case with what they are saying today."

But Labour too sought to venture on to its rival's territory, using its manifesto launch to try and dispel anxieties over the party's record of high public spending in government and position themselves as a party of "fiscal responsibility." Miliband led the launch with a pledge to cut the deficit every year — a far cry from his last conference speech, in which he failed to mention the deficit at all. The party now says that policies will be paid for without any additional borrowing — but critics have raised questions how Labour will "balance the books."

Speaking to the BBC, the Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson said: "They are committed to getting a current budget balance — a current budget surplus — by the end of the parliament. That's an entirely credible fiscal policy. But they continue to not to give us any sense as to how quickly they want to achieve that. That could involve significant spending cuts or tax rises over the next three years if they want to get there within the next three years, or it could actually involve no spending cuts in order to just achieve that by the end of the parliament."

Earlier today, the Green Party also launched its manifesto, promising to curb emissions, reverse what they regard as the creeping privatization of the NHS, as well as pledging to decommission Britain's nuclear deterrent, Trident.

Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy