“One in seven seats could be decided by renters”: so why aren’t parties fighting for their votes?

Vote, you fools! Image: Getty.

The director of Generation Rent on how renters should know their own strength.

Last week, I was sifting through old emails from a letting agent to find out exactly how much their surprise moving out fee was, so I could include it in my personal response to the government’s consultation on banning letting fees. (No, just one response from Generation Rent wasn’t enough for me.)

One of the threads I unearthed was a negotiation about the rent increase that year. They capitulated to my flatmate’s offer, reasoning, “Well, you have been good tenants,” then throwing in a backhanded, “for the most part”. This was slightly surprising because I think we had been pretty amazing tenants. But then I realised that, if you’re a lazy letting agent, you probably don’t consider tenants who make frequent but reasonable requests about disrepair in their home to be particularly good.

The Conservatives have played on this subjective definition of “good tenants” in their manifesto, promising them greater security of tenure. By specifying “good”, they appeal to renters who will unanimously consider themselves good, and to landlords who might be frightened by the prospect of rewarding “bad” tenants.

There are few clues to what this policy will entail – but it’s one of several new housing offers that the parties have added to their arsenals for this round of voting. Labour is promising discounted homes to buy and more council homes, the Lib Dems favour a rent-to-buy model, while the Greens want to trial a Land Value Tax.

For voters who simply want some respite from stiflingly high rents this might not set the pulse racing. But it’s fair to say each party has made a significant shift in appealing to renters – and anyone who wants a fairer housing market – since 2015, when their manifestos were pathetic by comparison.

Private renters, now 20 per cent of the population, are constantly lectured by pundits that we won’t be listened to until we start voting in greater numbers. I’m pleased to report that we are. Based on numbers from the Electoral Commission, English Housing Survey and Ipsos Mori, we estimate that 617,000 more private renters voted in 2015 than in 2010 – a larger increase than among homeowners.

This is the result of the rise in house prices that means many people are stuck renting. The increase in absolute numbers comes despite low and falling turnout rates among renters (51 per cent in 2015); by contrast, they’re high and rising among home owners (77 per cent).

The private renter population is so big now that 93 seats in the UK – one in seven – could be decided by their votes. These are seats where there are more renters who don’t feel loyal to one party (an estimated 30 per cent) than the incumbent party’s majority. They include marginals where there are a few dozen votes in it, but also relatively safe seats like Amber Rudd’s Hastings & Rye and the Labour-held Luton South.

A successful pitch to renters by one of the major parties could see the Tories take 30 seats from Labour, or 29 seats go the other way.

Constituencies where renters could decide the winner, coloured by the pary that currently holds them. Click to expand.

We based this analysis on data from the 2011 census. The private renter population has since grown by 25 per cent since, so there are likely to be many more constituencies where the renter vote will be a factor.

Given the prize on offer, the parties should be doing much more to win renters’ votes. Although politicians acknowledge the enormous shift taking place in home ownership, at this rate we’ll have our dysfunctional housing market for at least another 10 years.

Unfortunately, renters can’t simply wait until they dominate the polling booth to see any fundamental change. Benefit cuts mean many are sinking deeper into debt; others have their lives and families on hold until they raise a deposit to buy a home.

Change is also held back because the very act of voting is more difficult for renters. Thanks to the ability of landlords to use “no-fault” evictions and raise rent to unaffordable levels, renters are six times more likely to move home in a given year than homeowners. They are therefore more likely to find themselves unregistered when an election comes around. It doesn’t help that the government has stopped their annual mass nudging of people to register.


So it is up to the likes of Generation Rent, ACORN and other local renter groups to help people register to vote, provide information about parties’ housing policies, and to organise private renters so they can start punching their weight in the political arena. It’s already starting to work – all UK-wide parties except UKIP are committed to banning letting agent fees.

But until we have a government that will bring rents down significantly, renters will just have to rely on the negotiating gambit from my erstwhile flatmate. “While the market rent may be £380 a week, the landlord is unlikely to find a tenant willing to pay that without extensive refurbishment, improvements to the kitchen and a new sofa – so he’d be better off keeping us here on £340.”

Dan Wilson Craw is interim director of Generation Rent.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.