“The power of Generation Rent was felt for the first time”: did renters cost Theresa May her majority?

To let. Image: Getty.

As the dust settles on last week’s election results, attention has turned to trying to understand some of the demographic trends behind the results.

At Shelter, we’ve long had our eye on trends in housing tenure and how these might shape political outcomes. For context, mortgaged home ownership in England has fallen from 42 per cent to 29 per cent since 2000, while private renting has doubled in that time (to 20 per cent).

We will publish more data as it becomes available in the coming weeks, but here’s what we can piece together so far:

1. Private renters swung to Labour, home owners stuck with the Conservatives

New Ipsos data out today out today shows, in glorious detail, breakdown by demographic.

Click to expand.

Labour narrowed the gap with the Conservatives among mortgaged home owners slightly, while the Conservative lead among outright homeowners (people who have paid off their mortgage or cash buyers) remained similar.

Click to expand.

By the same token, social renters opting for Labour in big numbers is nothing new, and their lead remains roughly the same.

But what’s noticeable is the massive swing to Labour among private renters this time round around – up from a lead of 11 points to a lead of 23 points.

2. The impact of private renters was felt in key marginals

This nature of this swing in private renters towards Labour was felt in English marginals.

Both the raw number and overall proportions of private renters are strongly correlated with falls in the Conservative vote. The number of private renters in an area correlates even more strongly than, for instance, age to a fall in the Conservative vote.

An important point to make here is it’s often not just private renters who see their political attitudes shaped by housing – but also their older, more secure home owning parents worried about their children’s future, or seeing their communities impacted by an explosion in Buy-to-Let housing or HMOs.


Click to expand.

3. Private renters care about housing more

Of course, correlation is not causation. It could be argued that this is just a by-product of the fact private renters can tend to be under-45. or live in more urban areas.

However, private renters also consistently say they care about housing more – as they deal with the high rents, instability and poor conditions private renting often brings. For the public, housing tends to be a top five or six issue – but for private renters it’s a top three issue, on a par with Brexit and the economy. We also know it’s one of the few issues Labour had a lead on among voters.

It feels reasonable to say, then, that housing is at least one important driver of the block of voters which switched heavily to Labour in this election.

Click to expand.

4. The Conservatives found it particularly tough in marginals with low income private renters – a growing group

Indeed, the Conservatives seem to have found it hardest in marginal seats where low income private renters live – those most directly hit by the crisis.

We estimate there are around 1.3m hard pressed private renting households in England – those who fall beneath minimum income standard after paying the rent. As we argued in the election, these renters vote and often have the consumer habits of typical swing voters.

YouGov suggests there are 52 English marginals where this group of harder pressed private renters are disproportionately represented. The Conservatives lost eight of these seats they held, and made no gains in any of them held by Labour: all of their gains were in seats where low income private renters were under-represented.

This wasn’t just a factor in Remain voting marginals, but Leave ones too. Marginals where low income renters were especially heavily represented include Hastings and Rye, where the Home Secretary just held on; and seats Labour gained such as Crewe and Nantwich, Croydon Central, Bedford, Plymouth Sutton and Davenport, High Peak and Colne Valley.

Our research on this area, which we’ll publish in the autumn, also shows that two groups which swung heavily to Labour – 25-34s and 35-44 year olds – make up the largest chunks of low income private renter group.

Click to expand.

5. So what does all this mean?

Clearly, this election was more than just housing. But on this evidence we can say housing – and the impact of the housing crisis on private renters – is one of the key factors that helped polarise results on 8 June.

In some ways this is not surprising. Housing continues to be a key driver of inequality and, in some cases, hardship – as the shortage of homes, especially affordable homes, spreads to all corners of the country and impacts more people.

It’s not simply that home owners have an ‘asset’, but that their home provides them a stability and, comparatively at least, affordability that private renters do not currently enjoy. For instance, renters pay 41 per cent of their take home salary in rent; home owners pay 21 per cent of their salary towards their mortgage. Home owners can stay in their home for life they meet their mortgage payments; renters have six month contracts as standard.

The best response the new government can have to this is not to resile from the challenge in the face of tougher political circumstances, but to double down on efforts to fix things. It can be done.

Indeed, the irony is that a lot of what was in the Conservative manifesto was promising in this regard, and the people who put it together understood what needed to be done. Their promise to ban unfair letting fees for tenants, for instance, could save private renters an average of £350 each time they move; it has to be followed through on. Noises around introducing more security in the private rented sector were also positive – we’ve campaigned for introducing legislation to make 5 year tenancies, with rents linked to inflation, the new norm.

But fundamentally, this is about building more good quality homes that people can afford and can put down roots in, to bring prices and rents back within the reach of ordinary people. The Conservative manifesto promise to strengthen Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) is a key part to reshaping the private housebuilding market to achieve this, as our New Civic Housebuilding project made clear.

Beyond all this, we have called for a new generation of affordable homes at ‘living rents’ – to help the growing group of low income private renters falling through the middle of our housing market: not well off enough to afford home ownership or government schemes like shared ownership, but not in acute enough need to access social housing. This would provide stability and affordability that private renting does not, and could be combined with a ‘right to buy’ after a certain number of years.

Either way, the 2017 election was arguably the moment where the power of Generation Rent was felt for the first time. Without significant action to get to grips with our housing crisis, it’s unlikely to be the last.

Steve Akehurst is head of public affairs at Shelter.


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.