I used to think that the Tory problem was housing. But now I'm not so sure

A tentative U-Turn.

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It’s the housing market, stupid: that’s the analysis on what happened at the 2017 election that is gradually becoming the orthodoxy.

Matt Singh, the founder of Number Cruncher Politics, has looked at the British Electoral Survey and found that housing type heavily correlated with voting choice in the last election. People in the private rented sector not only voted in greater numbers, but were also more likely to vote Labour.

While you can criticise Theresa May’s commitment to it – not to mention that Philip Hammond’s Treasury has blocked many of Sajid Javid’s more radical ideas – the government is, rhetorically at least, talking about tackling the housing market.

I myself used to be strongly convinced by the view that the United Kingdom’s housing market is clearly driving some of the Conservative party’s electoral troubles. However, increasingly, I think the bigger problem facing the Conservatives as a result of the housing market, is one of distribution: growing prices means that liberal and ideologically left-wing middle class voters, who might previously have remained in Manchester, London or Liverpool, are moving out to previously blue or marginal suburbs – and taking their voting habits with them (see, for instance, the Wirral constituencies, both Bury seats, and Croydon Central).

I don’t want to belittle this problem. To take Merseyside as an example, in 2010 the Conservatives won Wirral West and could realistically aspire to take Sefton Central (Labour majority of 3,682) or Wirral South (531). Now, Wirral West is the most vulnerable Labour seat in the region and even that has a majority in excess of 5,000. But while this is a problem caused by the housing market, I am not wholly certain it is one that could be fixed by “solving” the British housing market (to the extent that is even possible). People move and lay down roots. Left-leaning Londoners who have made a new life for themselves in formerly marginal Bristol seats are not going to return to the capital, even if the option to do so suddenly became more affordable; at least not in numbers great enough to erode the big majorities enjoyed in most of the Bristol seats.

It seems to me that the “it’s housing, stupid” thesis needs to grapple with a few things. The first is that while renting remains a poor cousin to home ownership in the United Kingdom, renting did not become a significantly worse way to live between 2015 and 2017. (You might reasonably ask how it could have become worse all things considered.) The pressures on renters became more acute because the fall in the value of the pound helped increase inflation, which meant that wages fell in real terms, making the burden of rent payments more acute – but again, this is not a problem that can be primarily seen through the prism of the housing market, I think.

Increasingly I think the turn to Labour among renters might be a bit of a false positive: many people renting turned towards Labour, but that they were renting is sort of a secondary factor. More important vote-drivers include: their concern over cuts to schools and hospitals, anger about Brexit and the government’s broader turn towards the socially illiberal, in addition to the pressure on wages caused by the economy being in a slightly worse state in 2017 than in 2015, when the fall in the petrol price made people feel more affluent.

Now, of course, you can fix some of these things through sorting the housing market: if the cost of rent as a proportion of income falls because rent has fallen, then you probably get the same feel-good factor as if rent fell as a proportion of income because wages had risen. But broadly, I increasingly think that the government’s problems with the voters it lost from 2015 and 2017 don’t begin with the housing crisis, and wouldn’t end if it could be fixed by 2022 either.

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