Do we not all deserve a place we call home?

Renting in the private sector means an omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on.


I had my disagreements with M in the past; every time dramatic gestures would amplify his laughable threats that came straight from films and TV.  But on this particular occasion, as I sheltered in the doorway to my bedroom, I was shocked by his peaceful movement and expression, so at odds with the situation, as he advanced down the hallway towards me, dragging the baseball bat behind him.

M, and his partner O, previously strangers to me, were my flatmates in a shabby little South London flat.  Earlier that day O had ended their relationship, and on the come down from a coke binge M imprisoned her in their bedroom, beating and strangling her.  Hearing her cries for help I intervened, and just in time. 

Through 12 years of renting in the private sector I have found that sharing, even with friends, can be traumatic.  It requires a willingness to make uncomfortable compromises and the ability to forgive.  What should be a place of safety and comfort can very easily become the site of conflict and unrest.

The government’s decision last year to increase the age of entitlement to a one bedroom flat from 25 to 35 for a single Housing Benefit Claimant was perhaps a signal of their intentions rather than the reflection of an existing social trend.

As the pressure for a flexible and mobile labour force increases whilst wages go down and rents go up, sharing accommodation with strangers will become the norm, particularly for the young.  Compatibility between co-tenants is a gamble, particularly considering the unavoidable intimacy of the relationship.  And behind closed doors there is little protection from bullying and violence.

Commitment to a fixed-term contract and the inordinate cost of securing new accommodation can mean that once entered the situation is inescapable.

What will be the effect on the incidence and severity of mental health problems as the number of people living in conditions of persistent uncertainty and anxiety increases? Sadly, experiences like mine with O and M may well become more common.

Of course, privacy and stability are issues common to all tenants in the private sector.  To rent is to live in a house, not a home.

Right now, I am lucky to have a reasonable landlord; still, I am often reminded that this isn’t my home.  I must periodically submit to invasive flat inspections and nosey workmen who enthusiastically report back to the landlord as though I am under suspicion. 

A homeowner is master of their domain whereas the tenant has a master in their landlord.  The privacy afforded to tenants and homeowners is distinct.

When the people upstairs forget to turn off their taps and with every unavoidably defunct appliance I inch closer to making an enemy of my landlord, despite my contractual obligations and his.  Costing him money, pissing him off, will mean moving again – as soon as the contract expires I will be asked to leave.

Homeliness is a patina; an accrual of memories and emotional attachments.

The reality of renting is that each situation is only ever temporary. 

Like many people of my generation I will probably never own a home of my own.  I am instead destined to pay the mortgage for somebody else, investing a significant proportion of my income in an inheritance for someone else’s children.  But this goes beyond the flow of money from the poor to the rich.

The poor find themselves at the bottom of yet another hierarchy, this time with their landlord at the top.  With only the qualification of relative wealth, landlords have potentially devastating power over their tenants. 

Like trees that cannot spread their roots, the poor have no anchor in a storm. They can be destabilised and moved on with very little effort. Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging.

Last week in the Spectator , oozing with good intentions, Housing Minister Mark Prisk declared “I’m determined to make the Privately Rented Sector bigger and better.”  

Forcing more people into private sector tenancy ensures that the poorest are detached and powerless; unable to fight for their right to freedom. 

Do we not all deserve a place that we can truly call home?

Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging. Photograph: Getty Images
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.