Once upon a time, access to British democracy was limited by property qualifications. The exact requirements varied, depending on when and where you lived, but broadly speaking only those men who owned land or something equivalent were allowed to vote. It was not until 1918 that the property qualification was finally scrapped, and any man over 21 was allowed to vote. (Women in their twenties would have to wait another decade.)
Since then, there has been no formal property qualification involved in British politics. There has, however, been an informal one, which guides decisions about whose votes are thought worth chasing.
Consider the proposal that Ed Davey – if you’re struggling to place him, he’s the leader of the Liberal Democrats – unveiled on Sunday: to hand £300 a month to families who were, in the post-Kwasi Kwarteng era, struggling to pay their mortgages. “The government has a responsibility to step in and fix their own mess,” Davey told the BBC, “by providing grants to those struggling to afford eye-watering mortgage hikes.” What about renters, who are struggling to afford eye-watering rent hikes, introduced by landlords struggling with the eye-watering mortgage hikes? They, alas were not mentioned.
You don’t need to be John Curtice to decode the electoral calculation at work here: this is a pitch for the votes of natural Tory supporters, who may now be so infuriated by the results of Kwarteng’s intervention that they’re ready to bring down the Blue Wall. And it’s not quite true that the Liberal Democrats have entirely ignored the plight of renters: they’ve pushed a ban on letting agent fees (which has happened) and the abolition of no-fault evictions (which has not).
But it’s striking, nonetheless, that in Davey’s biggest speech of the year – which replaced the conference one kyboshed by the death of the Queen – people whose plight the Lib Dem leader chose to foreground are not those at the sharpest end of Britain’s housing crisis. It’s those who own property – those who are, in relative terms, secure. (Anyone can lose their home due to economic instability; only renters can lose their home due to another person’s whims.) Davey made a few noises about how his imaginary grant would only be available to those who were “really struggling”, but of course it isn’t the Lib Dems that implement Lib Dem ideas, and if this does magically turn into government policy it’ll be the Tories who have to deliver it. Still, I’m sure they’ll make sure that Britain’s generous landlords will pass any savings on to their tenants, too.
This is far from the first time renters have been treated like an afterthought in British politics. When the then-chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the energy rebate in February, little thought was given about how to ensure those renters who pay energy bills as part of their rent would benefit; it was September before the government made clear that landlords were not allowed to merely pocket the rebate while passing on the costs. (The National Residential Landlord Association responded by accusing the government of demonising landlords.)
Housing campaigners have complained for years that even left-leaning politicians often see little upside in doing anything for tenants, because they imagine renting to be a transient state that people occupy briefly on their inevitable route to home-owning conservatism: the idea that it’s a housing tenure used by a growing number of families with children is taking some time to sink in. In 2018, Theresa May felt it necessary to say that, “Whether you’re renting by choice or necessity, you’re not any less of a person for doing so and you should not be treated as such.” What kind of messed-up political culture do we have that a prime minister would feel the need to remind her country that renters are human beings too?
“No family should face losing their home because of the Conservative’s reckless mismanagement of the economy,” Davey said. He’s right. But families have been losing their homes because of the Conservative’s reckless mismanagement of the housing market for years – it’s merely that the families in question were renters. In some ways, we haven’t moved much beyond the Great Reform Act of 1832: if you don’t own a property, you don’t quite count.