“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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.