Beyond our Ken

In the wake of the local election results it would be easy to conclude that housing does not count as a political issue. Easy but wrong.

Londoners elected the one candidate for mayor (Boris Johnson) who was promising to do least with new powers on housing (though he did at least pledge to create Homes for London). Voters in cities other than Bristol rejected the chance to have an elected mayor who could be in a position to demand the same and to take a strategic view of housing in their area.

And one of the gurus of opinion polling, Ben Page of Ipsos Mori, had this to say in a blog for Shelter last week:

‘Sadly this is one of those issues where there does not appear to be any happy ending anytime soon – and certainly not due to any election outcome in the UK. For organisations like Shelter, the challenge is to re-frame and re-articulate housing as the kind of mass issue that gets high profile coverage in an election campaign. And that is no mean feat.’

Yet if you look carefully it’s also possible to detect signs that housing still is a political issue. There’s plenty of talk from Labour types and even from some Lib Dems about the need for more investment. There is concern too from some Conservatives about the way that stagnation in the housing market and housebuilding is costing them votes. Nick Faith, director of communications of the influential Tory think-tank Policy Exchange, wrote about the electoral maths on a blog at last week. Its research had found Conservative leads of 15 points among outright home owners and nine points among people with a mortgage. But it was trailing Labour by 14 points among private renters and 39 points among social renters.  ‘The average age of someone buying their first property is now 37,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the problem. If more and more people are renting these statistics suggest that the Tories could be in danger of losing a lot of votes.’

He said that the Tories had a problem not just with young voters but with their families too:

‘The problem is compounded by the fact that in order to win a majority at the next election, a number of target seats are based in predominantly northern, urban areas. If younger people living in Bolton West, Bradford East and Wakefield are unable to afford a one bedroom flat, let alone a family house, then the statistics suggest they are less likely to vote Conservative.’

It’s an interesting take on housing as a political issue – the solution of course is for the government to adopt Policy Exchange’s ideas on converting offices and shops into homes and building new garden cities – but Faith argues that the key point is that David Cameron has to send a message that ‘his government is doing all it can to provide homes for hard working people trying to get on in life’.

Housing, in other words, is the issue that can connect with the values of the aspirational voters that all politicians want to attract. The problem for them is that there seems no immediate prospect of a return to the growth in home ownership that has underpinned that promise in the past.

Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were all in Essex today. That’s no coincidence. The county is if of course a key political battleground between Labour and the Conservatives – remember Basildon in the 1980s and 1990s – but it has a symbolic power that goes beyond that as the home of the right to buy, of Essex man and of the ‘hard-working families’ that both sides say they want to support.

Here’s Ed Miliband in Harlow today:

‘Essex was the place where, in the 1980s, the Tories said they stood for aspiration. But aspiration is being blunted by what is happening in our economy. Aspiration is being held back and it is not just held back in terms of young people looking for work, it is held back in terms of people wanting a house, people wanting to get on, people seeing their living standards squeezed.’

He went even further later when a voter asked him about their daughter who had been on the council waiting list for 20 years. According to The Guardian, he said he was sorry to hear about the daughter’s experience and that it ‘hurts’ if she has always worked and done the right thing. Miliband attacked the previous Conservative council for freezing council house building and said the new Labour one was looking at whether it could do more. But he also admitted that ‘the last Labour government did not do enough on housing. With housing every party of the jigsaw needs to join up: private housing, social housing and the planning system. The government has spent two years messing up the planning system. And it has taken away targets for local authority house building.’

Cameron and Clegg’s Rose Garden 2 in the tractor factory was more to do with showing a united coalition front in a context of jobs and growth but you didn’t have to look too far over the weekend for Conservative references to the same aspirational themes.

I was especially struck by an interview with Grant Shapps on Friday in the wake of the election results. The housing minister seems to be an ever-more prominent front man for the Conservatives and he was asked by Eddie Mair on PM what he made of criticism from the right of the party. The exchange was, I think, significant enough to quote it verbatim.

Mair: They seem to want you to talk about key Conservative values rather than gay marriage and Lords reform.

Shapps: I’ll tell you what I think is really Conservative and we’ve done. It’s saying that it can’t be right to have a welfare bill that keeps spiralling up and out of control where people are trapped generation after generation on welfare. We’ve done something about it. We’ve said that with the cap no one can earn more than the average salary. There was a huge fuss, for example, about housing benefit…

Mair: So why do they think you’re talking about something else and it’s not what they want to talk about?

Shapps: It’s very easy for whatever…narrative it’s often referred to, to run away but actually I think what we are talking about is making sure that it pays to be a hard-working sort of person who is aspirational…the strivers…and those are the sort of people that we are certainly for and that’s why tackling the sort of economy that Labour led us into where people actually are trapped in situations where it literally paid them not to go out to work.’

I was very struck by that word ‘strivers’ and the way that Shapps put it in a housing context. Conservatives from David Cameron used the word frequently during the election campaign and in media briefings ahead of the Queen’s Speech like this. It was there again in a Telegraph article by Cameron over the weekend in which the prime minister warned about the coalition being seen as a ‘bunch of accountants’ if it was not explicitly on the side of ‘strivers and battlers’.

‘Strivers’ is of course designed to identify the Conservatives with aspiration but it’s more than just that. Saying it implies its opposite – scroungers, spongers – and Shapps was making an explicit link by identifying welfare reform with Conservative values. Housing benefit cuts in general and the household benefit cap in particular are seen as as vote winners. That reference to ‘generation after generation’ was a throwback to Conservative thinking of the 1970s and 1980s about the cycle of deprivation and the dependency culture. It was discredited then and it’s wrong now but in this narrative you cannot be a ‘striver’ if you are on housing benefit or in ‘subsidised’ social housing.

This is where all that talk about ‘hard-working families’ – by Labour as well as the Conservatives – leads if it is not balanced by an alternative narrative about the need to help those who cannot work, those who cannot find work, those who cannot pay their housing costs and those who just need homes. Or by that alternative Conservative perspective about home ownership and housebuilding and a realisation that renters have votes too. Housing is indeed being re-framed and re-articulated as a political issue – but not at all in the way that its supporters would like it to be.


5 Comments on “Beyond our Ken”

  1. Jules – first time I’ve seen transcript of Shapps on PM and he said last week that the HB bill target has been revised from the 2010 one of £18bn by 2015 to a figure of £23bn by 2015. Thats £5bn increase in HB over original target and includes the LHA freeze this financial year.

    HB will increase according to this new revised target by 28% MORE than Shapps and DWP said it would as a result of the HB reforms.

    Yet read the PM conversation and again Shapps is saying HB has reduced. Unless it was recorded PM goes out at 5pm on Friday yet the day before Shapps admitted to his own local paper ( that HB forecast was up

    The extract from Shapps says:
    In response, Mr Shapps told the Welwyn Hatfield Times: “Boris rightly says he’d be against me doing anything to jeopardise the interests of London. I absolutely agree, and would never want to do that.

    “All we’re saying is that hard working families paying their taxes must not be paying for people to be able to live in neighbourhoods that they themselves could never afford.

    “That’s just unfair.”

    He added: “Everyone might want to live in the finest street, in the best neighbourhood in Mayfair, although I personally don’t, but that doesn’t mean there’s a right to do so with others paying your rent.”

    He also said it was wrong to say the Government was reducing the total housing benefit spend.

    “In fact it’s projected to go from £21bn per year to £23bn by 2015.

    “What we are doing is ensuring that it doesn’t rise even faster to £25bn,” he said.

    So Shapps says on Thursday HB is going up yet the next day on PM he tries to say the exact opposite!

    • julesbirch says:

      Joe – Wasn’t the DWP clear from 2010 on that they were reducing the projected growth of housing benefit, not actually cutting the total spend (though opposite impression often given)? Would be interesting to see how current projections compare given rising unemployment and rents since.

  2. Tom Chance says:

    Surely the best strategy for the opposition and for groups like Shelter is to hijack that frame?

    People are working hard, striving for a better future, but they are priced out of ownership, stuck in insecure and expensive private rented housing and unable to access a decent council home. Now the Government is pulling the rug out from under them, taking housing benefit away from working people who – despite striving – are unable to afford our exorbitant housing.

    We want to put people to work building homes for the strivers, the Government are happy to sit back and protect wealthy home owners and landlords from change.


  3. […] see the cap on benefits at the level of the average salary as one of their most popular policies. As I blogged after the election results, it’s one of the key ways they seek to demonstrate that they are on the side of the […]

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