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

A tentative U-Turn.

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.

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.