Parties need a strategic housing policy that accounts for renters. Photo: Getty
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As more people rent, politicians can't rely on the same old home-owning swing voters

Parties will have to shift focus as, by the next census in 2021, roughly 104 parliamentary seats will have a majority of households that are renting.

The First Past The Post electoral system leads to some pretty stagnant thinking when it comes to the main political parties. They’re basically all chasing the votes of the same home-owning swing voters in the provinces with a garnish of xenophobia on the side to win back the Ukip waverers. But the electoral calculus is changing and we’re starting to see politicians respond to this.

Recently we crunched the numbers from the past two census returns, remapping the data against the current parliamentary boundaries. And we found that by the next census in 2021, roughly 104 parliamentary seats will have a majority of households that are renting. Unsurprisingly, 49 seats, almost half the total, were in London, with most of the rest in other urban areas.

This leaves the parties with a conundrum; can you be a party that is for provincial baby boomers and the urban young at the same time? And with the London election only one year after the general election, this isn't an abstract question.

The mayoralty can only be won by Labour, the Conservatives or an insurgent independent candidate - maybe a Green. The Conservatives are facing a problem in the form of a rapid decrease in the number of homeowners compared to renters, however, with a colourful candidate and a low Labour turnout, they can still win.

Labour on the other hand has a bigger problem. Its lack of a coherent housing policy lets down the 35% of Londoners who, according to Ipsos Mori, say that housing is their number one issue of concern. A failure to address this is precisely what will give the Conservatives the low Labour turnout that they need.

Most of Labour's putative mayoral candidates have clearly recognised that they have no chance of winning if they toe the party line and Hackney MP Diane Abbott has gone further than the rest with her publication this week (with us) of her proposal for a modern take on rent controls.

This plan sets a low cap, related to council tax bands, but allows landlords to breach that cap on the condition that they pay 50% of the excess into a social housebuilding investment fund controlled by the Mayor.

The graceful effect of this is that landlords either charge low rents, or they fund housing supply, which will bring rents down, creating a long term market convergence towards the capped price. The more they charge, the more they fund truly affordable housing.

We're happy to work with any mayoral hopeful (OK, not the BNP) to come up with great housing policies. But Labour will scupper the chances of its own candidate if they fail - potentially in government - to win credibility with London's renters.

Failing to address the London housing crisis or to empower a candidate to do so will leave Londoners hungry for a better option. This is just the sort of fertile ground in which someone like Russell Brand, or the Green Party could seed a strong mayoral candidacy.

Electoral failure for Labour doesn't depend on an insurgent candidate winning. Labour will know it has lost its London heartlands if it comes third, even if that insurgent candidate only comes second. This would highlight, ward by ward in fact, those areas of London that are willing to vote for what they really want rather than just voting Labour to keep out the Conservatives.

In a fragmenting political landscape Labour still clings desperately to its "least bad potential government" electoral strategy, which has already allowed the SNP, Ukip and the Greens to eat away at their support. With a strategic housing policy that actually addresses the crisis people face, Labour could start to win back enthusiastic supporters. And if they (or the other parties) would like such a policy platform, we're happy to help them develop it.

Alex Hilton is director of Generation Rent. See its rent control campaign here and read its publication on rent control here.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.