Why registration is the key for private rentersPosted: March 30, 2014
Can the votes of private renters swing the next election and move their concerns up the political agenda in the process?
The huge shift in housing tenure seen this century suggests they can. In 2000 just two million households in England were private tenants. According to the English Housing Survey, that had doubled to almost four million by 2012/13. Add another 500,000 in Wales and Scotland, allow for another two years of growth and, with 1.8 people of voting age per household, you have nine million potential private rented votes at the next election.
Polling by Generation Rent, the recently relaunched National Private Tenants Organisation, suggests that the votes of private renters could be decisive in 86 seats in England. Of these, 38 are currently held by the Conservatives, 32 by Labour, 15 by the Lib Dems and one by the Greens. The results here could be enough to deliver an overall majority for David Cameron, make Ed Miliband the leader of the largest party or give Nick Clegg a major say in a new coalition.
And those are cautious calculations. They allow for low voter registration among private tenants by assuming only one vote per household. They exclude any impact in Scotland and Wales, where the devolved governments are already pursuing renter-friendly policies. And they rely on the poll’s finding that 35 per cent of private tenants tend to change their vote between election. The 86 private renter marginals identified by Generation Rent are those where the existing MP’s majority is smaller than 35 per cent of private tenant households in the constituency.
The list is led by Hampstead and Kilburn and Hendon, two London constituencies with wafer-thin majorities, and it includes 14 other seats in the capital. Other clusters of private renter marginals include eight in Devon and Cornwall and major conurbations in Yorkshire and the West Midlands and on the South Coast.
There is of course nothing to prove that private tenants will vote as a renter bloc as there may be issues they care about more. To take one example, it’s noticeable that the list includes many seats with large numbers of students, who will also be influenced by issues such as tuition fees and the infamous Lib Dem pledge not to increase them. However, the potential power of the private tenant vote is undeniable.
That’s demonstrated not just by the responses to the poll from housing minister Kris Hopkins and shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds in today’s Observer, but by the stress on private rented sector reform in Labour’s policy review and by the realisation among Conservatives of the long-term threat that falling home ownership poses to their vote.
George Osborne does of course already have a housing policy designed to win the next election. Although the rhetoric behind Help to Buy (votes) is all about helping first-time buyers achieve their dreams, the real political dividends may come from existing owners feeling good about rising prices. Even if you assume two voters per household that has been helped to buy so far, that is 40,000 votes compared to nine million.
However, I can’t help thinking that there is much more that private renters could do to exploit their position at the next election. And more they could do to win political support for policies such as a ban on letting agent fees, licensing of agents and registration of landlords and greater security of tenure.
Both involve tackling a different form of registration. I’ve blogged before about how millions of private renters are effectively disenfranchised by the housing system. Research by the Electoral Commission in 2011 found that the number of people eligible but not registered to vote had increased from 3.5 million in 2000 to six million in 2010. It found a clear link between the growth of private renting and the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. The 89 per cent of outright owners and 87 per cent buying with a mortgage who were registered compared with just 58 per cent of private renters.
On top of that, the rate of ineligible entries on the register was four times higher in private rented properties than it was in owner-occupied ones. The Electoral Commission found that moving home was a key factor influencing both completeness and accuracy. Only 26 per cent of people who had moved within the last year – and six-month assured shortholds are the default tenancy for private renters – were registered. Taking Generation Rent’s estimates, these figures mean that some 3.8 million potential private renter voters in England alone are not registered and many of the remaining 5.2 million may still not be eligible to vote at the 2015 general election.
Even worse, any review of constituency boundaries after 2015 will hard-wire this unfairness into the system in all the general elections that follow. The Conservatives were intent on a cut in the number of constituencies and a review of constituency boundaries during this parliament that would have delivered them up to 20 extra seats until this was blocked by the Lib Dems. A revival of the plan after 2015 would mean new constituencies based on those registered to vote rather than entitled to vote, which would inevitably mean less representation for people in the private rented sector.
For both those reasons the time has come for a major voter registration drive among private renters. Voter registration for the next election takes place between October and March. I’m sure the idea has already occurred to Generation Rent, which seems ideally placed to galvanise a campaign alongside the local private renter groups that are springing up around the country. Parliamentary candidates and local parties will have every reason to support it too.
That kind of organisation plus voting power can deliver results for private renters whoever wins the May 2015 general election.