Show Hide image

No, it’s not the housing crisis dividing baby boomers and millennials

There’s a little something called Brexit. 

“A nation of home owners” has long been a Tory aspiration. But for many young people today, owning their own home has come to seem a pipedream. It is little wonder, then, that Wednesday’s Budget is expected to include significant new measures designed to boost housebuilding. After all, the Conservatives are all too well aware that one of the key reasons why they lost their majority in June is because they performed so badly amongst the under 40s.

However, it is far from clear that attitudes towards housing account for the sharp generational divide in political preferences that was evident in June’s general election. Concern about housing is indeed widespread – but is just as evident amongst older people as it is amongst their younger counterparts.

According to a survey conducted by NatCen Social Research shortly after June’s election, 54 per cent of all voters agree that “there is not enough housing for people like you in your local area”, while as many as 73 per cent agree that “young people in your local area agree will never be able to afford a home”.

However, younger and older people are largely at one on this issue. As many as 49 per cent of those aged 60 and over think there is not enough housing in their area, while 73 per cent reckon young people in their area will never be able to afford a home. The equivalent figures of 56 per cent and 70 per cent amongst the under 40s are little different.

The same NatCen survey also found that, while 46 per cent of those aged under 40 believe that it should definitely be the government’s responsibility “to provide decent housing for those who can’t afford it”, as many as 51 per cent of the over 60s also hold that view. Meanwhile, even Labour’s proposal in June to cap increases in private sector rents “so that they can only rise in line with inflation” is not particularly popular amongst younger people. YouGov reported during the election that although 63 per cent of those aged 18-24 thought this was a “good idea”, so also did 68 per cent of those aged over 65.

Young people may be at the sharp end of the current housing “crisis”, but there is seemingly plenty of sympathy for their plight amongst voters of all ages, not least perhaps because young people’s housing difficulties affect mum and dad – and grandma and granddad - too. 

The sharp age divide in the election was not a reflection of an intergenerational conflict between younger and older voters about policies that affect them differently. Even on the vexed issue of university tuition fees, the difference of view between younger and older voters, although apparent, is far from stark. NatCen found that although only 19 per cent of the over 60s think that no student at all should have to pay tuition fees, only 28 per cent of the under 40s adopt that view too.

The key source of the sharp political divide between younger and older voters lies not in the “retail politics” of age-specific policies, but in a difference of outlook above all about immigration and Brexit.

During the election campaign, YouGov found that while 80 per cent of those aged 65 and over backed the Conservative policy of “reducing net migration to the tends of thousands”, only 39 per cent of those aged 18-24 did so. There was much the same division over Theresa May’s proposal that non-EU migrants should have to pay more to use the NHS.

Younger voters are less concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration. According to NatCen, as many as 54 per cent of those aged under 40 are inclined to the view that “Britain’s cultural life is generally enriched by migrants coming to live here from other countries”, whereas only 34 per cent of the over sixties take that view. Some older voters may feel that immigration means that Britain no longer feels to them like the country in which they were brought up, but that outlook is much less widespread amongst those for whom “multicultural Britain” has always been a fact of life.

It is not surprising then that in NatCen’s post-election survey, as many as 64 per cent of those aged under 40 said they would vote Remain if the EU referendum were to be held again, while only 43 per cent of the over 60s take the same view.

A successful initiative on housing might prove popular amongst voters in general. But it seems unlikely to overcome the Conservatives’ difficulty in winning the support of younger voters in particular. To achieve that, the party will have to secure a Brexit that does not offend the markedly more liberal outlook of Britain’s younger generations. And at present that looks like an even more difficult task than goading the country’s housebuilders into action.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe initiative.


Show Hide image

Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.