Housing is a key voter priority. Photo: Getty
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The Home Front: why housing will be a key general election battleground

New Ipsos MORI research shows how important housing is as an electoral issue. So what next for policymakers?

"Rent Freedom Day" and London’s "March for Homes" followed hard-on-the-heels of the New Era and Focus E15 campaigns while our recent research for the Chartered Institute for Housing which found three-quarters of Britons and 67 per cent of MPs agreeing that there is a national “housing crisis”. So, is housing an important issue electorally, and how are the parties polling?

First, the electoral demography; in sixteen of the BBC’s 49 marginal constituencies those who rent their accommodation comprise 40 per cent or more of the population and they are the majority in four seats. By contrast, owner-occupiers vastly outnumber renters in marginals such as Wirral South, East Dunbartonshire and Mid Dorset and North Poole.

Thus the map of Britain’s key marginal seats is not only a patchwork of red, blue, orange, green and yellow, but also one of different tenure profiles. And while owner-occupiers have 2.5 times the "voting power" of renters nationally (being twice as numerous and more likely to vote), this arithmetic will vary locally. Mobilising renters could bring success and there is more electoral ‘upside’ among this group, but their sheer weight of numbers makes it folly to ignore mortgage holders and owners.

How are the parties doing? A problem for both Labour and the Conservatives is that they face challenges among their traditional tenure constituencies. For example, historically, more owners have voted Conservative than Labour (even during the Blair years) but analysis of those "certain to vote" in our aggregated monthly 2014 polls shows the Conservative share dipping, and Ukip’s rising. Similarly, social renters have always been Labour-leaning and the party share is up on 2010, but only just and, again, Ukip have reached 15 per cent.

(Click on graph to enlarge)

The Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck among mortgage holders who, along with private renters, are the two "bellwether" tenures (they tend to vote the same way as Britain does). The Conservatives will be relieved that mortgage interest rates will stay stable until later this year while Labour will be cheered by its showing among those renting privately, up eight points on 2010 although their share is being squeezed by both Ukip and the Greens. Moreover, private renters are the least likely tenure to be registered to vote and less likely than owner-occupiers to turn out.

This all points to something we already knew; the general election is extremely unpredictable. The picture is unclear on housing too; it is more salient at this stage before an election than it was in 2005 and 2010, but is an issue which only 5 per cent identify as determining their vote. And while there is a strong sense that housing is in crisis and is something government can do something about, house prices and affordability are the salient issues and are associated more with the market than government (and often weakly associated in the public’s mind with supply).

Labour lead the Conservatives on the issue of housing but we ought to remember that housing is not the be-all-and-end-all issue among any tenure group. Even among private renters who are particularly concerned with housing, the issue trails the NHS, immigration, the economy and unemployment. It does, though, make the top three in London. And perhaps recognising this, the Conservatives have made housing one of their six national election themes while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have repeated pledges to build new homes at volume.

What next? The safest bet is probably that housing will feature more at the 2015 general election than four years ago, especially safe given very limited attention it has received at past elections. But should it be more than the ‘second order’ issue that looks likely? While our polling finds a growing sentiment that we are talking "too much" about immigration, 82 per cent agree that government should give more attention to housing.

Ben Marshall is Research Director, Ipsos MORI Housing and tweets @BenM_IM

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.