Rishi Sunak is still smarting after being forced to back down on housing targets by Conservative backbenchers in December. Now, in an interview with ConservativeHome, he’s said it wasn’t just what Conservative backbenchers wanted but Tory party members and councillors as well. “What I heard, consistently, particularly from our councillors and our members, was what they didn’t want was a nationally imposed, top-down set of targets,” he said.
This is confirmation that Sunak has ceded the issue to the opposition. Sunak doesn’t have the grip on his party to stand up to his backbenchers on housing. That leaves a gap for Labour to fill. Nonetheless, Keir Starmer’s party is so far cautious about putting house-building front and centre of its offer. Housing is not one of Labour’s five national missions, which the party has said will form the basis of their agenda for government.
The policy document that accompanied their “highest sustained growth in the G7” national mission does state that the party will build more affordable homes by reforming planning rules. And in response to Sunak’s comments, Lisa Nandy, the shadow housing secretary, has said that the party will “support first-time buyers to realise their dream of homeownership with a comprehensive mortgage guarantee scheme and by giving them first dibs on new homes in their area”.
[See also: Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe]
But these policies are buried in the party documents or are trotted out ad hoc. Peter Hyman in Starmer’s office devised New Labour’s pledge card for the 1997 general election. The five pledges are unfailingly easy to understand and practicable, such as cutting class sizes to 30 or under. It makes you wonder whether Labour might have benefited from naming a house building target in place of achieving the highest growth in the G7. Voters rarely think in terms of percentage gain of economic output, let alone making that percentage relative to six other countries.
So why hasn’t it? The economy and the cost-of-living crisis is going to dominate the next general election. It consistently tops the polling on voters’ priorities and Labour probably wanted to underline its commitment to economic growth, particularly when Starmer and Rachel Reeves believe growth is the solution to many of the country’s problems.
In contrast, housing sits at ninth place on the list of voters’ priorities. And those that do care – insecure young people frustrated by the housing market – aren’t the group that will win Labour the next election because they are likely to vote Labour regardless of the party’s messaging.
That doesn’t mean Labour doesn’t need a more detailed housing policy, particularly when house building will be key to achieving its growth target. On that note, I hear Nandy will deliver a big speech on housing ahead of the party conference in the autumn. One to watch.