Cameron Takes Tories Back to the Future

Yesterday’s big launch went well, with 1.6 million viewers excitedly tuning in to watch on television. But enough about Game of Thrones – this is manifesto week. Today saw the Conservatives take their turn, following Labour’s safety-first effort yesterday. As expected, there was a big new policy announcement at its heart, designed to offer a sense of David Cameron’s vision for Britain.

The promise to extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants is a radical one. As many as 1.3 million people could be afforded the opportunity to buy the houses they live in at a discount of as much as £100,000. It stands in the Conservative tradition of extending home ownership to those on lower incomes, most associated with Mrs Thatcher’s original Right to Buy Policy.

As she put it in a speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1986, ‘The great Tory reform of this century is to enable more and more people to own property. Popular capitalism is nothing less than a crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation. We Conservatives are returning power to the people.’

There is something important in this. This is election is being fought largely on living standards – whether wages are rising, what effect tax and benefit changes have had – but it is assets which give people security in the long-run. Having a proper stake in society and some control over your own destiny is more than a matter of pay packets and tax credits.

The problem, as another free-market thinker once said, is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If assets are discounted then the discount must come from somewhere. This makes Fraser Nelson at the Spectator wonder if those not enjoying such a generous discount will find it fair. This is, of course, a challenge for all redistribution – but more so when the split between who benefits from the redistribution and who does not appears to be quite random.

The bigger question is whether the homes sold to tenants will be replaced. The Conservative Manifesto also pledges a big house-building programme, but it would be a surprise if local authorities or housing associations were enthusiastic participants in that. Will they build houses that they are then bound to sell at a discount? The story so far suggests not.

There were also big moves on childcare (30 hours of free childcare to working parents of three and four year olds) and income tax (raising the starting rate to £12,500). The latter of these does not target resources at low earners as effectively as working tax credits do, but it does have the same appeal to self-determination that the Right to Buy offers.

Attention will now turn to whether ‘manifesto week’ has any impact on the polls. The likelihood is that it won’t. Perhaps a better barometer for whether the ideas presented this week will ever become Government policy is how potential coalition partners respond to them. For now, at least, politics is a cross-party affair. That makes party manifestos more like opening offers than solemn promises.