Ben Wray: Want less Tories in Scotland? Build social housing

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray takes a look at the wider political ramifications of the housing crisis

THERE'S lots being said about the Tories' advance in Scotland in the local elections last week; most of it is overblown rubbish and some of it is sober and realistic.

My analysis? Combine a short term hard Brexit Tory bounce with unionism becoming unashamedly Toryism, and then with the SNP’s 100,000+ members going through a demobilised period (partly because of confused signals from the leadership and partly because of fatigue); then wrap all of that up in a local election that was all about next month’s constitutionally-focused General Election, where poorer people are less likely to vote and with a STV voting system that favours pan-unionist alliances: and you get a very good day for the Tories.

But, at least in this column, I’m not going to obsess about the short and medium term. I want to take a longer term look at the question I have seen lots of people ask over the past few days: "Why do so many people vote Tory?"

Break totally with Tory neoliberal policies at Holyrood and not only will it help society as a whole, but it will also help build a social base of anti-Tory voters.

In particular, I want to look at the material reality of people’s lives that make particular demographics in Scotland and the UK believe that the Tories reflect their values and their interests.

The housing market is the best lens to look at this problem through, as it provides a window into the fundamental problem for the left in challenging the Tories: Tory policy may cause a crisis for society as a whole, but at the same time it creates voters with a Tory mentality. 

Housing also provides a big part of the long term solution in Scotland: break totally with Tory neoliberal policies at Holyrood and not only will it help society as a whole, but it will also help build a social base of anti-Tory voters.

The key thing to understand about the housing crisis from a political perspective is that it has created deep divisions within society between those on the housing ladder who benefit from rising land and property values and those who aren’t on the housing ladder and are paying increasingly large sums in extortionate rents. 

The key thing to understand about the housing crisis from a political perspective is that it has created deep divisions within society.

This, obviously, is a class-based division but it is also deeply intergenerational, with older people benefiting from the financialisation of the housing market in the 1980s and 1990s, which has crowded out the market for the next generation. These intergenerational inequalities in turn deepen class inequalities (wealthy parents can give their own kids a leg up).

The following graphs from the Resolution Foundation show very clearly the evolving crisis of housing in the UK over the past 30 years, and the class and intergenerational nature of it.

This first graph shows the changes in tenure since 1951. It’s clear that from the start of the 1980s the number of owner-occupiers started to rise relative to social housing. While social housing has continued to decline, private ownership has dropped off from the early 2000s, but has been replaced by privately rented housing, which is at its highest level for 50 years.

This graph shows the boom in house prices, well above the rate of income growth, over the past 20 years.

This rise in house prices has had a particularly profound effect on this generation of young people, whose parents were on the housing ladder at their age, but over 50 per cent of under-35s are increasingly having to accept (expensive) private rents. So much for Thatcher’s "property-owning democracy".

The comparison between generations is a profound one, with a significant difference between millenials and older generations. In turn, those who are now 70 and above are even more likely to be owner-occupiers than in 1998-2001, reflecting the shift in intergenerational wealth over that period, largely due to house price inflation.

It should be noted that these problems are not quite as acute in Scotland as the UK as a whole, but that is mainly because London is so extraordinarily crazy, skewing total figures. As this graph shows, the problem in Scotland is still significant and has been growing in severity.

The political impact of this changing housing context is hugely significant. The owner-occupiers are the largest contingent and are most likely to vote, and therefore politicians tend to put their interests (rising house prices, nimbyism, etc) before the renters. 

Plus, it helps for Tories that the owner-occupiers are (at least on a superficial level) on the same side as the banks, estate agents and landlords who benefit from high house prices, high rents and the prevention of affordable public housing.

Just 18 per cent of social housing tenants voted Tory in the 2015 General Election, down six per cent on 2010. Twenty-eight per cent of private renters voted Tory in 2015, down seven per cent on 2010. Meanwhile, a huge 46 per cent of owner-occupiers voted Tory in 2015 (up one per cent), compared to 22 per cent for Labour (down two per cent).

This dynamic also played itself out in the 2014 independence referendum, as the following graph from the Scottish Referendum Study shows.

This graph shows starkly how this plays out in terms of the intergenerational divide in polling trends in the UK today. Of course, not only is the UK population getting older, but older voters are significantly more likely to turn out.

A note of caution: I am not saying correlation is necessarily causation. There has always been a correlation between being older and being more Tory. This is partly psychological. But this age gap has been growing in severity as the housing crisis has grown (pensions have also been protected more than other parts of social security that impinge more on the working age population and children). 

It’s worth noting that in 1997 the age divide was not this high: in 1997, 23 per cent of 20 year olds and 42 per cent of 80 year olds voted Conservative. Now the figure is around the same for younger people but much higher for older people; 70 years+ polling at 60 per cent and above Tory.

But my point is not really about age: my point is that the growing intergenerational wealth divide has been driven by a housing market that is totally broken on any social measure, but nonetheless creates individuals who see their needs and interests as separate from those of society as a whole, i.e. Tory voters. 

Thatcher’s right-to-buy was a policy disaster: but it was a political triumph. Even if voters didn’t become Tories overnight (the evidence shows they voted Labour in 1997), part of their interests became connected to the banks and high house prices, and part of their belief system became more individualised and more disaggregated from the general common good. 

We should understand rising support for Tories in this long-term context as well: as a working through of neoliberal policies on political consciousness.

We live in fear of scaring particular voting demographics. We stay stuck on the defensive and, inevitably, we lose.

The Tories understand this link between policy and voting trends only too well. In former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s biography, he stated that former chancellor George Osborne and former prime minister David Cameron told him they didn’t want to build social housing, not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but because "it just creates Labour voters".

"They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters. It was unbelievable," Clegg wrote.

The right think cynically in their own political interest because it also happens to be aligned with who has economic power. The left think fearfully in their own political interest because they are scared to take on those with power. In the neoliberal era we have lost confidence in our own ideas and their power to change society and – in the process - change people’s worldview.

We live in fear of scaring particular voting demographics. We stay stuck on the defensive and, inevitably, we lose.

Want people to think with a less Tory mentality and think more about society? Build more social housing. Show people the benefits of an approach to housing where all of society (as well as future generations) benefits from building and sustaining a high-quality common housing stock together. 

My point is: change ideas by doing. Enough of the politics of triangulation, where you try to appeal to voters on a lowest common denominator basis, to their worst instincts.

In the process we could make life a lot more affordable and pleasant, tackle one of the major sources of climate change and create high-skill jobs.

My point is: change ideas by doing. Enough of the politics of triangulation, where you try to appeal to voters on a lowest common denominator basis, to their worst instincts. Be honest about the fact that we are heading for another housing crash if we go on like this, and that we need drastic change for all of our long-term futures.

A few weeks ago I was discussing housing in Skye, and young people at the meeting were telling me they were leaving, not because they wanted to but because they literally had nowhere to live. Older people were telling me they honestly fear the island could become just a playground for the super rich if something isn’t done to making housing affordable for the working-age population. 

It is a proper acute crisis there, yet the Tories just won their first Highland councillor in a decade. Inaction will not make people less Tory.

Be honest about the fact that we are heading for another housing crash if we go on like this, and that we need drastic change for all of our long-term futures.

The Scottish Government and the new local authorities across the country must start changing ideas by doing. In three or four years, with an ambitious housing programme, the situation in Scotland could be utterly transformed. 

The demographics of independence would change with it.

Pictures courtesy of The Independent, Scottish Referendum Study, Common Weal, LSE, Press & Journal, The Resolution Foundation, YouGov, Ipsos Mori and Stuart Crawford

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