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.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.