November 30, 2021   4 mins

Since the 2019 election there has been growing support for the idea that ‘homeowner vs private renter’ is the key dividing line in UK politics. Housing tenure, according to this thesis, is the most important determinant of voting behaviour, even more than class or values — so we need to give priority to housing status rather than income or education.

The rise of this view on the Left has coincided with the decline in support for the Labour Party among those traditionally considered ‘working class’, and an increase in their support for the Conservatives. But if we see housing tenure as the real indicator of class in modern Britain, then we can still claim that the working class has not abandoned Labour. All that was needed was to change its definition.

The first thing to say about this argument is that it’s a little too convenient. Only five years ago, the Labour Left was using ‘working class’ in the traditional sense and upholding the dichotomy between ‘university-educated middle-class professionals’ on the one hand and ‘working-class communities’ on the other. Indeed, this understanding of class, culture and political values held until as recently as the eve of the 2019 general election.

You don’t have to be a cynic to think that this new understanding of class would not be put forward if the traditional class alignment of the post-1945 period still held, and if young people and renters were as supportive of the Tories as they had been in 2015. Certainly, the old concept of ABC1-C2DE is inadequate, as argued by a range of academics. But disregarding the importance of class and insisting on the primacy of housing tenure is politically misguided and empirically unfounded.

Just look at the ten safest Labour seats in the country. Five of them are in Liverpool; two each in London and Birmingham; and one in Manchester. There is, in fairness, a clear disparity between the percentage of people who own their homes outright in these seats and the national average — only 19% on average in those ten constituencies, compared with 30.6% nationwide.

However, when we look at the percentage of homes with a mortgage, the average across the ten safest Labour seats is 25.6% — just over six points behind the UK as a whole. If you take out the three outliers of Liverpool Riverside, Birmingham Ladywood, and Tottenham, it is 29.3% — barely distinguishable from the UK average of 32.9%.

The idea that Labour can build a ‘coalition of the renters’ is also undermined by the stats. In the ten safest Labour seats the average proportion of private renters is 23.3% — exactly seven points more than the national average of 16.3%. Seven points is not insignificant, but it is not indicative of a massive disparity in housing tenure between Labour’s heartlands and the average UK constituency. What’s more, if you take away the outliers of Liverpool Riverside, Manchester Gorton and Tottenham, the average proportion of private renters in the safest Labour seats is 19% — only 3% more than the national average.

There are some qualifications to this argument: just because these are the ten safest Labour seats, it does not mean they are typical Labour seats. In fact, the five Merseyside seats are demographically very different from Labour heartland seats, with low numbers of university graduates and even fewer immigrants. But if housing tenure truly is the new dividing line in UK politics, we would surely expect to see more significant discrepancies in rates of mortgage-holders and private renters between the ten safest Labour seats and the national average.

And there are other reasons why the Left should not pin its hopes on an alliance of young, graduate, private renters riding to the rescue. As recently as the 2010 election, there was no difference between the proportion of 18-24s and over 65s voting Labour, both at 31%, and the Tories were only one percentage point behind Labour among 18-24s, on 30%. In 2015, while the age alignment that characterised the last two elections began to take shape, the Conservatives actually did slightly better than Labour among university graduates, with 35% voting Tory as opposed to 34% for Labour. (The Tories also had a two-point lead among private renters that year.)

In the last six years alone, the Conservatives have moved Left on culture and won their first majority in 27 years. Four years later, they moved Right on culture and (somewhat) Left on economics and won an even bigger majority. It is not beyond their wit to pivot once more, moving Left on culture and introducing policies to help renters.

While it seems too politically difficult for the Tories to build millions of new homes, it is not too difficult for them to throw small and medium-landlords under the bus. They have already introduced pro-renter legislation such as the 2019 ban on tenancy fees; further legislation to make life-long renting as desirable as it is in large parts of continental Europe and North America could see the Tories make up lost ground among private renters. And if combined with another about-turn on cultural issues, as after 2005 and 2016, they could quickly catch up on Labour’s lead among young people and graduates.

There is an increasing sense that Boris Johnson’s days are numbered, and his likely successors — currently Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the safest bets — would represent a move away from the Red Wall-courting strategy of the last five years and a return to economic and cultural liberalism. The cancellation of the HS2 extension from Birmingham to Leeds might be the first sign of this coming pivot.

But perhaps most importantly, the Left’s new focus on homeownership ignores the importance of geography and cultural capital: there are all kinds of advantages that middle-class and even poor renters in London and other big cities have over homeowners in small towns. As even the ‘It’s homeownership, stupid!’ school concede, the areas where you are least likely to be able to afford a house are those where all the prospects are.

As long as that remains the case, it is unlikely that homeownership will swing an election. In the meantime, the Left ignore the importance of class at their peril.

David Swift is a historian and author. His latest book The Identity Myth is out now.