Why the left should aspire to a "property owning democracy"

There is a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one.

The aspiration to home ownership, once seen as part of British national identity itself, is in trouble.  Recent research by Cambridge University suggests that a marked drop in mortgaged home ownership both pre-dates the financial crash and is likely to continue long into the future. That won’t come as news to those trying to become first-time buyers, struggling in a mortgage market where the size of required deposits rises sharply, even as house prices themselves stay largely the same. It also won’t come as news to those families who have contributed to the rapid growth in the private rented sector, often struggling in a market which has seen neither consistent improvements in protections for tenants or in the quality of available homes. 

Some on the left of British politics probably welcome this potential long-term shift in Britain’s housing market. Many left-leaning commentators have long argued that the British have been overly committed to ownership, neglecting the possibilities of long-term renting associated with many European city environments. They also remember the battles against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to create a “property-owning democracy” in the 1980s, where the belief that home ownership helped to shape a more conservative political orientation was shared by both critics and admirers alike

This would be a mistake, however. As an IPPR report that will be published later this week argues, home ownership should remain a primary commitment for British housing policy. We should dedicate ourselves to identifying new policy solutions to make it easier, not harder, for the people of this country to own a home.

There are two primary reasons why it is important to restore the possibilities of home ownership to as broad a section of the population as is compatible with economic stability.

 First, home ownership has always been the way in which most British families put down roots in their communities. Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live. It provides a sense of belonging that is not generative only of a conservative political mentality but one which allows the development of a palpable sense of agency, with individuals and their families becoming able to commit to the good of their neighbours as well as to improve the quality of their own lives. The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon. There is, in other words, a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one and we would be foolish to overlook it.

Second, home ownership remains a widely shared aspiration of the people of Britain. Despite all of the difficulties with mortgages and affordability, most people in Britain long to be able to shape their own domestic environments, to choose their own wallpaper, to paint their own front doors. Narrowing the availability of this option only to the well-off - essentially to those with large enough deposits or with parents willing to pay the costs themselves -   would be to further segregate an already excessively segregated society. If home ownership was to become the housing equivalent of those “Olympic car lanes” that now blight London - available only to a very select few - then we would live in a less, not more, desirable society. The left should never welcome a development that enables the rich to continue to access a good to which most people aspire and to deny that right to others.

The decline in home ownership might not be easily reversible in the short-term. It would need significant reform of our mortgage market and, even more importantly, a substantial increase in the construction of new houses. Nonetheless, if we care about living in an integrated society, where people feel in control of their own lives and connected to their neighbourhoods, it is a good to which we should remain committed.

"Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live." Photograph: Getty Images.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.