Why isn’t housing more of a political issue?

With the party conferences having just finished, it seems that housing doesn’t enjoy the same profile that it used to have as a political issue. David Kingman wonders whyProperty prices

We are currently at an important juncture in the British political schedule. We have just had the party conference season, arguably the point during the year when politics receives the most attention from the media, and this year’s conferences were especially important given that we are only around 18 months away from the 2015 general election.

Although 18 months might sound like a long time, it is very little by the standards of politics. Realistically, this was pretty much the last opportunity for the three main parties to make important personnel changes before they go to the polls, or to announce major new policy ideas. Already, their political strategists and spin doctors will be putting the finishing touches to their 2015 manifestos, the contents of which will have largely been decided.

We don’t know for sure what these will contain yet, although by the standards of modern politics it probably won’t be anything too radical. In some senses this is a shame, as some new research has shown just how different past manifestos have been compared to modern ones, especially when it comes to the key issue of housing.

How much have things changed?

The Social Market Foundation, a think tank, has recently produced an analysis of every election stretching right back to 1918 which looked at what proportion of their published manifestos the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, devoted to the issue of housing.

Although this is a somewhat crude method of analysis, the figures they present paint a striking picture. It shows that at many 20th-century general elections housing was clearly a major issue, sometimes occupying 10–14% of the party manifestos. Housing appears to have peaked in significance as a political issue during the 1924 general election, when it occupied roughly 14% of the Conservative Party manifesto and 8% of the Labour one; but – reflecting the fact that this measure underwent wild fluctuations during the period which is being analysed – housing then went on to receive barely 2% of the space available in either party’s manifesto at the subsequent general election, held 5 years later.

Average levels of political attention devoted to housing were generally at their highest during the 1960s and into the early 1970s, before it fell to its current level, which is extremely low by historical standards.

The research by the Social Market Foundation also shows just how dramatically the terms of our political debates around housing have changed over time. During the 1960s, the two main parties actively competed with each other to see who could promise to build more homes for aspiring homeowners (it was during the 1960s that house building peaked at around 400,000 per year). The 1966 Conservative Party manifesto contained a pledge to use “every new method that works to get the houses up and keep the prices down”.

Yes, you did read that correctly: politicians used to actually promise to try and create lower house prices, a total turnaround from today’s scenario, in which the politicians appear to be competing with each other to throw demand-side stimulus measures at the housing market – a policy programme in which maintaining house prices at their extremely high current levels appears to be a deliberate objective.

Housing in the 2015 election

Despite widespread dissatisfaction over the state of Britain’s housing market, with millions of young people living at home because they can’t afford to get on the housing ladder, housing appears to have become a remarkably depoliticised issue in Britain today.

To the extent that it is politicised, the politicians appear to take the priorities of older property owners much more seriously than those of the housing have-nots, hence the focus on maintaining the current high prices.

Some commentators have claimed that 2015 will be the “living standards election”, in which the key issues will revolve around what the parties say they will do to aid working families who have been hit hard by a double-whammy of stagnant wages and a rising cost of living during the current parliament. It therefore seems unlikely that 2015 will become a “housing election” instead. To the extent that housing will feature as a major political issue, it is likely to do so only in respect of dealing with the needs of these families.

This is not to say these people lack genuine concerns. Many of these families are terrified of falling into negative equity, which is why they are desperate for house prices to be maintained, while the Bank of England’s refusal to raise interest rates partly reflects a realisation that it could leave millions of homeowners unable to repay their mortgages (a theme which the Bank’s outgoing Governor, Mervyn King, raised during one of his final public addresses).

This focus upon the priorities of homeowners is also a reason why a number of radical-sounding proposals to address the housing crisis are nowhere near being implemented as policy, such as some kind of genuine land tax which actually reflects today’s property values.

This is all rather a pity. At a recent public debate on “Generation Rent”, one of the speakers said that the politicians are aware that over a fifth of UK households currently rent privately. Most of them would like to be able to own their own property one day, are dissatisfied with the UK rental market (especially the lack of stable, long-term tenancies) and, as they tend to be younger than the rest of the population, have no fixed attachment to any political party.

The votes of “Generation Rent” could be a great prize for any of the major political parties, if only that generation felt someone was standing up for their needs.