Renters: unregistered and unrepresented?

It’s the time of year when my council sends round letters to check that we’re registered to vote. Happily, I’ve been renting my flat for a while and confirmed our names on the register with minimal fuss.

As the political world gears up for a by-election in Corby and a Bill on electoral reform wings its way through Parliament, the letter did get me thinking about how many of my neighbours – a somewhat transient bunch – had done the same.

The fact is that private renters are consistently the least likely to turn up at the ballot box on election days or to register to vote. Nearly 90% of owner-occupiers are registered compared to just 56% of private renters.

It’s hard to unpick whether this statistic is a quirk of demography or a reflection of the tenure itself. For example, private renters are generally younger than their homeowning neighbours and younger people tend to vote less. Correlation doesn’t always mean causation.

On the other hand, with a legal framework where short term contracts are the norm, private renters are very mobile, and it is widely acknowledged that people who move more vote less.

An even starker stat illustrates this: 92% of those who have lived in their home for more than five years are registered compared with just over 20% of those who’ve been there for less than a year. This isn’t too surprising; a new address means re-registering, which can be forgotten or seen as a chore, especially if it’s not an election year. If you’re only going to live somewhere for the short term, you’re probably less inclined to feel invested in the area and its local politics.

Should we be worried by these figures? I think so. Not least, democratic engagement is a good thing in its own right, regardless of tenure. Many organisations work to encourage voter registration and engage the public in democracy, and they must reach out to private renters. Others seek bolder solutions, such as compulsory registration.

The low registration numbers may also affect housing policy. Politicians of all parties have failed to sort out the myriad problems with the private rented sector. They have a whole range of excuses for this, but surely one unspoken consideration is the perception that (whisper it…) renters aren’t electorally important so why bother? This perception must surely change as politicians wake up to the fact that the private rented sector is growing rapidly, and is no longer the preserve of students and young professionals renting for short periods.

The hard working, squeezed middle families locked out of homeownership and renting for the long term are exactly the kind of people that politicians like to talk about, and they will have to offer them better housing policy solutions in order to win votes. Either we wake up to the changes in housing tenure, or we will continue to see sliding turnout and an increasingly unengaged electorate.