In pledging to end excessive rent rises, make long-term tenancies the norm and ban letting agents' fees, Ed Miliband has made one of his astutest interventions to date. As he noted in his speech today, there are now nine million people renting privately, with almost 50 per cent of households over the age of 35. They are currently paying an average of £1,020 a year more than in 2010 and rent payments represent 41 per cent of their gross income, compared with 30 per cent for social renters and 19 per cent for owner-occupiers. There are a huge number of votes to be won from offering this group a better deal - not least in marginal seats.
A recent poll by the campaign group Generation Rent found that 35 per cent of private renters are swing voters and that more than half (52 per cent) consider the cost of rent to be their biggest problem. It went on to show that there are 86 constituencies in which the ruling party's majority is less than 35 per cent of the private renter population - the proportion who change their party allegiance at general elections. Of this total, I've found that 37 feature on Labour's target list of 106 seats - Miliband's plan will help the party win votes where it matters most.
The Tories are arguing that Labour's "rent controls" (and there is a significant difference between index-linked increases and an overall cap) would be ineffective, but the desperation with which they are seeking to kill the idea (witness Grant Shapps's hyperbolic reference to "Venezuelan-style rent controls") shows that they recognise its political potency. A YouGov poll of Londoners earlier this month found that 55 per cent support rent controls with just 19 per cent opposed.
In denouncing Miliband as "Old Labour" and comparing him to Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, David Cameron is harking back to the Tories' glory days. But when Margaret Thatcher assailed her left-wing opponents in the 1980s, she did so in the confidence that her free-market policies retained popular support. Cameron does not enjoy that luxury. Polls show that around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities. If Miliband is a "socialist", so is much of the public. The danger for the Tories is that they have positioned themselves as the defenders of the market at a time when it is not working for the majority.