On the wall of Ed Miliband’s office is a 1945 Labour poster promising “a non-stop drive to provide a good home for every family”. For the opposition leader, it is a permanent reminder of the need to emulate this crusade. The issue of housing is playing a greater role at this general election than at any other in recent history. Between 1992 and 2010, the subject was consigned to the lowly rung occupied by agriculture, energy and the arts. Once asked why New Labour devoted so little attention to housing in government, the former cabinet minister Hazel Blears candidly replied that no one was interested enough.
They are now. After increasing almost continuously throughout the 20th century, home ownership in England has declined to 63 per cent, the lowest level since 1985 and below the supposedly socialist France. The inexorable rise in prices is the inevitable consequence of too much demand chasing too little supply. Not since David Lloyd George occupied 10 Downing Street will a parliament have ended with so few homes having been built.
For the Conservatives, who regard spreading home ownership as a means of creating more Tories, the crisis is an uncomfortable symptom of market failure. Their response has been to give the appearance of decisive intervention. The sixth and final election pledge announced by David Cameron was a commitment to create a country in which: “Everyone who works hard can own a home of their own.” As well as extending Help to Buy, the government’s mortgage subsidy scheme, until 2020, the Prime Minister has promised 200,000 new “starter homes”, offered at a discount of 20 per cent to first-time buyers under the age of 40.
The aim of widening property ownership has historically been viewed as a conservative aspiration but it is one that Labour has also embraced. In an article for the New Statesman in 2012, Marc Stears, Miliband’s confidant and chief speechwriter, wrote: “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.” It is also true that the majority of voters continue to wish to own their own home. No party with an interest in winning elections can afford to neglect this desire. Miliband has made it his ambition to double the number of first-time buyers to 400,000 by 2025.
Unlike the Conservatives, however, Labour has recognised the economic reality that, even with state assistance, property will remain prohibitively expensive for many. There are votes to be won in improving conditions for the UK’s nine million private renters (who now outnumber their social counterparts). Thirty five per cent are swing voters and more than half of these (52 per cent) cite the cost of housing as their greatest concern. Even more notably for Westminster psephologists, there are 86 constituencies in which the incumbent party’s majority is smaller than the former group. Of this total, 37 feature on Labour’s target list of 106 seats. It is with an eye to capturing such constituencies that the party has promised to standardise three-year tenancies, to cap rent increases and to ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants. These pledges will be repeatedly promoted by Miliband and his shadow cabinet colleagues between now and 7 May.
“We need an offer for renters, too,” one Tory told me when I mentioned this strategy. But beyond encouraging landlords to provide longer-term tenancies (rather than forcing them to do so), the Conservatives have remained largely mute on the subject. Their most memorable contribution has been to deride Labour’s approach as redolent of Venezuela. By pledging to fund “starter homes” through the removal of the obligation on developers to build affordable housing, Cameron threatens to make a bad situation worse.
It is emblematic of the increasing political disparity between England and Scotland that the latter has taken radical action to tilt the system in favour of tenants. In a little-noticed move last year, the Holyrood parliament passed a bill to abolish the Right to Buy scheme and protect further social housing stock from being sold off to private landlords and others. The Liberal Democrat MP and likely future leader Tim Farron (profiled by me here) has introduced a bill to grant councils the right to suspend the programme. It is a proposal that Miliband may face calls from the left of his party and the SNP to embrace as the affordability crisis persists.
The struggle between Labour and the Tories for supremacy over housing policy exemplifies the wider contest. Cameron’s party is appealing to its core vote by subsidising ownership (ensuring what George Osborne once described to the cabinet as “a little housing boom”) and neglecting alternative voter constituencies. Labour is seeking to reconcile the need for radicalism with the need for credibility. Aides acknowledge that the pledge to build 200,000 homes a year by the end of the next parliament falls short of the 250,000 required to meet demand (“a point in the trajectory” is how one describes it). The Liberal Democrats have promised 300,000; the Greens have promised 500,000. Neither, however, has published a comprehensive plan to match Labour’s Lyons Review.
In future elections, housing will rank alongside the economy, immigration and the NHS as an issue of supreme salience. That Labour enjoys a convincing lead in this area is cause for optimism among the party. As headline polls suggest the Tories may have achieved the hitherto elusive “crossover” required for election victory, it is one the opposition must exploit now.