Zac Goldsmith vs Sadiq Khan vs the crisis: why London's 2016 mayoral contest will be the housing election

Facing off: Conservative Zac Goldsmith and Labour's Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

Whenever we speak to people up and down Britain about London, they talk about it like another country, with its “crazy” house prices and rents cited as proof positive. Inside the capital the housing crisis is felt so acutely that our research for London Councils, published last week, finds a third of adults saying that costs are pushing them to consider leaving.

The issue has been bubbling up in London for some time now. It has been more top-of-mind in London than it has elsewhere in Britain for at least as long as the Conservatives have been in Number 10 (both with and without the Lib Dems), and is trending upwards as a national issue.

In 2013, we found 39 per cent of Londoners giving a range of housing issues, mainly affordability, as “the most/other important issues facing London”. Last month it was 54 per cent, much higher than London’s perennial issues of transport (41 per cent) and crime (16 per cent). While the salience of housing has increased fifteen points in two years, economic issues have gone the opposite way by a similar margin.

Mindful of voters’ concerns about housing, both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have put it centre-stage of their early pitches, Goldsmith calling next May’s election a “referendum on housing”. But in doing so, they might want to heed the cautionary findings from our research.


In particular, there is considerable pessimism in the capital; only one in 10 anticipate affordability will get better in the next two years or so, while two-thirds of private renters think they will never be able to buy. The candidates should be careful not to further stoke aspirations without certainty that they can intervene to solve a crisis prey to strong market forces.

We also know that in the electorate’s mind the issue of housing is not simply about supply, although clearly this is important and recognised as such by voters. For example, our research for both Berkeley Group and Create Streets shows that Londoners are not willing to entirely sacrifice quality for quantity.

Tenure is an important issue too. While the aspiration for most people is firmly ownership, there is also appetite for mixed tenure provision, reflecting diverse needs and situations.

Housing offers huge electoral potential. It has got to the point where everyone thinks it important, whatever age, whichever class and tenure, inner or outer London. Thus, it cuts through all demographics and areas and, in contrast to the national picture, housing has as much traction among owner-occupiers as renters. This is significant, because homeowners and mortgage holders are significantly more likely to vote, but in London their voting power is relatively weaker given the sheer number of renters (who make up the majority in some London constituencies).

Candidates will need to have their tactical wits about them. For example, they will be mindful of sensitivities around house price inflation: nationally, owner-occupiers think house price rises are good for them personally, albeit bad for the country. They’ll also need to be wary of any state intervention that could be seen as either depressing the value of many people’s prized assets, or feeding a wider impression that candidate’s instincts are anti-business.

In 2012 Ken Livingstone’s Living Rent proposal was apparently popular (he lost). And this year Labour had a lead on housing policy at the general election and didn’t prevail.

Talking to an issue is one thing, but for it to bite electorally, voters must perceive a difference between candidates and a capability to tackle the issue. Perceived competence on housing, as on other policy areas, will be central to next year’s election, and there is some convincing to be done to get past voters’ natural cynicism about promises.

The election is some way off, and Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan are in start-up mode. There is a lot for them to work through, but housing looks sure to be a big part of their plans, and of the election itself.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

This article was originally posted on our sister site, The Staggers.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.