“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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”