In his keynote speech to the virtual Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson spoke directly to a group of voters you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
He spoke to those who have been working from home in cramped, rented accommodation during the pandemic, using ironing boards as desks and bedrooms as offices, often with no outdoor space. He commiserated with those who are paying huge amounts to rent a home they cannot truly love or make their own, “because they cannot add a knob or a knocker to the front door or in some cases even hang a picture – let alone pass it on to their children”. He noted that there are millions of renters at the moment who can’t buy their own home, not because they can’t afford the mortgage repayments, but because they can’t afford a deposit, and he lamented the “disgraceful truth” that levels of owner occupation for the under 40s have fallen dramatically.
He was speaking, at length and with more feeling and detail than the rest of his speech, directly to the experience of private renters under 40. In other words, from the podium of Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister, with a majority of 80, made a direct pitch to a group who largely don’t vote Conservative and who are moving away from the Tories at every election.
“The Conservatives have really struggled to win the support of renters in recent elections, particularly younger renters,” notes Chris Curtis from YouGov. “It is one of the key groups that have moved away from the party in the past half-decade.” Under David Cameron in 2015, the Conservatives narrowly won the private renters’ vote; under Boris Johnson, according to Curtis, they dramatically lost in this group in 2019, and even more starkly among private renters under 40. Only 20 per cent of private renters under 40 voted Conservative at the last election, compared to 55 per cent who voted Labour.
The perplexing question is: why did Boris Johnson choose to single out these voters, who are currently unlikely to vote for him, in his conference speech?
The first answer is that, simply, the Conservatives want to reiterate their identity as the party of home ownership, and know that the party tends to do better when home ownership is increasing and the party is championing it as a value that is exclusively its own. The policy that Johnson outlined in his speech with regard to home ownership was a re-announcement of a Conservative manifesto pledge from the 2019 election – a pledge that, notably, didn’t prevent poor electoral performance among private renters, and especially among private renters under 40, but that has nevertheless been part of the Conservative vision for “levelling up” Britain since before the election.
But it is still noteworthy that the Prime Minister focused on the recent experiences of renters in particular in this speech at a highly delicate political moment, as a second wave looks likely. There was no description of the daily lives of the care workers, nurses, doctors, or supermarket workers over these past few months, for example, but there was time to evoke the life of a 20-something who has had to use an ironing board as a desk.
We know that politicians of all stripes do sometimes adopt policy priorities arbitrarily, based on a personal encounter with the policy area. Some accounts suggest that Cameron was convinced that the Conservatives should champion marriage equality after he made his aides debate the policy on a whim while they were bored waiting for food in a restaurant. One aide is supposed to have spoken of the difficulties his brother, who is gay, experienced, and Cameron was convinced. Retrospectively it has proved to be one of Cameron and George Osborne’s proudest achievements in government. Similarly, the rare flash of insight into the experiences of this particular group could well be reflective simply of the people Johnson has around him in Downing Street: the 20- and 30-something advisers and staffers who rent privately in London; his own children; and Carrie Symonds, who, although not a private renter, is in that demographic and is a known influence on the Prime Minister.
That could be all it is: a seemingly ambitious political target that is simply down to a confluence of pre-existing Conservative policy and a problem that has particularly captured the Prime Minister’s imagination. But if we are to credit him with a deeper method to the madness, this would be it: this is much less about the Conservatives winning back young renters, than it is about preventing a Labour monopoly on the issue.
The New Statesman has reported at length on the likely strategy for winning back Labour’s lost voters and forming a durable electoral coalition. The party’s challenge is to unite voters who are divided culturally over a shared economic vision, and the likely pillar of that will be housing. Polling shows that the voters worried about high rents and being unable to afford a house aren’t only the ones experiencing it first-hand; renters’ parents and grandparents share these concerns and prioritise this policy area, even if they are only encountering these economic challenges indirectly. An electoral landscape where there is cross-generational consensus on the housing crisis is ripe for Labour’s taking, or so it thinks.
The Prime Minister’s speech, if it wasn’t just a flight of fancy, suggested that the Conservatives are already future-proofing their offer to the electorate on housing. They have pre-emptively parked their tanks on Labour’s lawn.