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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Meanwhile in the red corner

Labour of course, have their own problems. These are illustrated perfectly today, with the news that General Election supremo, Alan Milburn, is seeking to wrap his party in Tory clothes once more by a massive extension of the right to buy so as to boost home ownership. The UK already has one of the highest levels of home ownership in Europe but it also has a number of other social problems as well, including growing homelessness and a massive shortage of affordable housing.

This policy will not only set Alan Milburn on a collision course with Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, but with the Welsh Assembly Government as well. Wales Labour, supported by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, have been seeking restrictions on the right to buy in high demand areas. We have also asked for viable alternatives to stock transfer, so as to give tenants the choice of keeping the local Council as their landlord. Both of these require the consent of the UK Government. If Labour are now saying that they will set an agenda on housing at odds to these requests, whilst at the same time refusing Wales the powers to go their own way, then they will be making things very difficult for themselves indeed.

Of course, housing tends to be very low on the political radar in General Elections (and most of the rest of the time for that matter), but the issue of powers will be a key one in Wales and will attract a lot of media time. Equally, a great many people will vote according to their perception of how well the Government is doing on education and health. I have already dealt with health at great length in the last week, but things are not so rosy on the education front either.

This report makes it clear that student loans, tuition fees and growing levels of debt are driving the poorest students away from Higher Education and making it the preserve of the more affluent once more. The article states that 'between the early 1980s and late 1990s, the proportion of children from the richest quarter of families who had completed a degree by the age of 23 shot up, from 20 per cent to almost half. Over the same period, the number of graduates among the poorest quarter of families crept up from 6 per cent to just 9 per cent.'

This issue is going to have particular resonance in University Towns and marginal constituencies such as Cardiff Central, but it is also going to influence the voting patterns of a large number of people of all ages and class.

The backtracking on international environment targets is not going to play well with many voters either, nor will the lingering issues of trust around the Iraq war, and yet the depressing thing is that the sum impact of these matters will most probably lead to more abstentions than votes for an opposition party. We will do our best obviously to make our arguments count and to work against that trend but at the end of the day, the key issue that will decide the General Election is how many of these disenchanted people will vote and in which constituencies they seek to register their views through the ballot box in any numbers.

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