“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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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.