There was a nice moment on Monday night at our political panel event, joint hosted with KPMG. The event discussed what issues will dominate the next election. Our Chief Exec, Campbell Robb, geared himself up to give an impassioned speech on the importance of housing in 2015 – only to be forced to concede that Mary Riddell had already given it!
Mary had just eloquently put the case – as she has done in her columns – for the importance of home to huge swathes of voters. She went on to outline the political opportunity presented to any party that properly commits to sorting out the shortage of affordable homes in this country.
For me, this crystallised the transformation housing has undergone in our national political debate in recent years: from a relative minority interest to an issue that the most well-respected Westminster columnists are telling all political parties to take more seriously.
This set the tone for the rest of the evening, which included brand new polling and segmentation from Rick Nye of Populus, and the excellent Iain Martin, with Anne McElvoy deftly chairing proceedings.
While no one claimed that housing was going to be the issue of the election, there was a clear and genuine sense that it is right in the mix – not least because of its centrality to other key issues. This was made clear effectively by Rick, who outlined some of the startling findings from the polling:
- While over a third (38%) say they think an economic recovery is underway, just 1 in 10 (11%) agree that a recovery is taking place which they feel part of. Here 69% said any recovery ‘won’t feel real’ until it genuinely gets easier for young people to own a home. In this respect, it outpolled even rising wages (49%), falling unemployment (36%) or falling inflation (24%). Housing is clearly vital to people’s view of their children’s outlook, which in turn has huge influence on their overall sense of economic optimism.
- The cost of living came out as the most important issue facing voters. Of those concerned by the cost of living, 72% say the situation would be improved by lower housing costs. 30% say their children will need their help with housing costs but they won’t be able to afford to lend a hand.
Unsurprisingly this new anxiety about housing re-shapes a few commonly held assumptions – not least that rising house prices are political gold-dust for an incumbent government. Populus found:
- More people now agree that “rising house prices make me feel worse about my family’s future”, with a clear majority preferring stable or falling house prices.
- This applies more, not less, to swing voter groups than the population at large. The two swing groups Rick identified – ‘calm persistence’ and ‘hard pressed anxiety’ – were both more likely to agree that “rising house prices make me feel worse about my family’s future” and “rising house prices make me feel worse about the national economic recovery.”
Help to Buy doesn’t look such clever politics in this new environment.
That said, these numbers do outline a huge political prize for any party that gets it right and owns housing as an issue.
However, as Iain Martin astutely pointed out, this cannot be achieved by halves. Voters are savvy, and rightly disillusioned at hearing politicians adopting the language of aspiration and social mobility while their own lives stand still. A few good headlines spun out of a few more half-measures will not convince them. The gap between rhetoric and reality for voters is ever yawning, and each time it widens public faith in our political system is poisoned further.
Any party that wants to talk convincingly to people’s sense of anxiety on issues like the economy, aspiration or cost of living will need to tackle head on an issue at the heart of it: the massive shortage of affordable homes.
There can be no short cuts on this – fixing it requires financial capital and political capital; a willingness to invest but also take on vested interests, to take on the deep reforms needed but also risk short-term unpopularity. This is not impossible – as Campbell argued, we’ve seen it on a whole range of ‘consensus’ issues, like pensions or HS2. And as we’ve seen above, the ultimate electoral dividend is huge.
At the moment, though, no major party has yet to tick all those boxes. That being the case, the least surprising of Rick’s findings was this: when asked which party they trust on housing, by far and away the most popular option? ‘None of the above’.