Political

Reasons to be sceptical about making housing central to the party’s political message

In my critique of Tim Farron’s William Beveridge Memorial Lecture and the purpose which such a political speech should have, I mentioned my doubts over the way in which the Liberal Democrat Party President put housing at the centre of the political pitch he would like to see our party make.

To be a successful high profile issue like this, two conditions need to be met.

First, it needs to be an issue the public believes is important, or can be persuade to believe is important – and not just in abstract but in deciding who to vote for in a general election. Second, the party needs to offer a credible solution to the issue.

The public doesn’t prioritise housing

On the first point, the public rarely rates housing high as an electoral issue. That is both somewhat bafflingly, given how much housing features in people’s conversations of their own current circumstances and their hopes or fears for the future, but also a consistent finding over the years and right up to the present.

The latest MORI issue tracker, for example, has housing down in 7th place, with only 15% of people saying it is the most important issue facing Britain today, whilst the latest YouGov issue trackers had only 21% saying housing is one of the three most important issues facing Britain (putting it in joint 5th place), with an even lower 16% saying it is one of the three most important issues facing them or their family (which is the form of the question that is usually a better predictor of political behaviour by voters).

Those are not the sort of figures which suggest a political message centred on housing will succeed, at least at a Westminster general election – for as Lib Dem activist James King pointed out to me, people in London do say housing should be a major priority for the Mayor of London.

I asked Tim Farron about this in the bloggers’ interview at the Social Liberal Forum conference, but other than making reference to the London poll Tim didn’t (yet) have a strategy for making housing a central issue to the public other than believing the public would think it more important in the future. That’s too passive and risky an approach for my liking.

What will be different next time round?

On the second test a policy has to pass, my doubts are simply that many politicians of varying parties have called for a huge boost in housing for many years now. So far the volume of housebuilding and the costs of becoming an owner haven’t showed much of  a change thanks to these repeated calls for action, with the one major fluctuation being the depression-generated pause in rising home ownership costs.

Has Tim Farron successfully identified the causes of these past failures – and hence identified a solution (or, more likely, set of solutions) to them? Is there enough substance behind the energetic and amiable calls for action? Notice how few of the six possible policy options I laid out before he has addressed.

Don’t forget private renters

On the credit side he’s certainly been putting in the time researching and thinking about the issue, but he also is one of those who quickly moves from ‘let’s talk about housing’ to ‘let’s talk about home ownership’ as if the private rented sector does not exist.

Private renters are the housing sector that politics (mostly) forgot. Private renting has recently broken a century-long decline in Britain and the proportion of households renting is now on the rise.

As I’ve written before about renting:

People who rent in the private sector get short shrift in British politics. Renting is rarely talked about and when it is, it is almost always in the context of it being seen as inferior to owner-occupation. It is as if a private renter is simply someone who has not been successful or lucky enough to become an owner-occupier…

You can fight through a bulging email folder of press releases from politicians wanting to make mortgages easier, cheaper, safer and more numerous before you find one that talks about tackling any of the issues renters face.

Private rents are falling in real terms

Moreover, overlooking private renters means not only neglecting a growing part of the housing market, it also means overlooking one where housing costs are barely rising.

Rents in the private sector have been consistently rising at only a modest rate and frequently at less than the rate of inflation. Even including London, private rents went up by just 1% in the last year (that’s 1% overall – not 1% in real terms; in real terms private rents fell). Private rents are not soaring. They are falling. (UPDATE: See the latest figures here which make the numbers different but leave the same basic point intact.)

I first noticed this via Labour blogger Hopi Sen, who has made some very thoughtful posts on the subject, especially this collection of evidence.

There’s still a huge value judgement associated with private renting by most politicians, as if it is always an inferior alternative to home ownership, just as part-time jobs are frequently implicitly depicted as necessarily inferior to full-time. Yet both renting and part-time jobs can suit people.

The key thing is for it to be a matter of choice. If people genuine prefer either, they’re not making an inferior choice, they’re making their own choice.

In the case of renting, that requires reforms such as better choices of tenure and more action on dodgy landlords so there is a good, positive alternative on offer.

That’s why a good housing policy needs to feature not only the supply of new homes and concerns for home ownership (especially given its strong emotional hold on so many) but also remember the increasing ranks of the private renter.

Tim is by no means alone in the party in not giving that much attention to private renters; seeking more attention for them is one of my most regular comments on policies that pass through the Federal Policy Committee. That is, though, all the more reason for him to show leadership and help change that.

A final thought: I’ve expressed my doubts about whether what was in Tim Farron’s speech will fully match up to the housing challenge. That also applies to the words I’ve heard from many others too – and Tim deserves credit for triggering rather more debate within the party by a speech than most.

 

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