What turns Labour or Lib Dem or Green Party or Scottish Nationalist voters into Conservatives? Rather a general question. Each individual who switches political allegiance will have a particular account of the circumstances of their electoral journey. But if a snappy answer is demanded then the best one is: “Home ownership”. Being able to afford to buy a house is not quite the same as being rich. Let us define “rich” as earning more than £50,271 this year. This means some of your earnings will be in the “higher band” for income tax of over 40 per cent. If you are earning that – and you want to buy somewhere in London – you wouldn’t get much. If you get a mortgage of four times your income – and have saved up a deposit on top – that might stretch to an unattractive one-bedroom flat in Dagenham in need of repair. In other parts of the country you could get something quite nice.
Another demographic associated with voting Conservative is being older. Older people are also more likely to be owner-occupiers. This brings us into “chicken and egg” territory. Is the key point in a propensity to vote Conservative to be old – while it just so happens that the old are more likely to be home owners? If the young were able to buy their homes would they still defiantly refuse to vote Conservative until wisdom eventually emerged with their grey hair?
My hunch is that home ownership is the point to focus on. As a Londoner, I am acutely conscious of the Conservatives relative decline in the capital by contrast with our success elsewhere. Next year sees local elections in the 32 London boroughs. This site will be chronicling them – each will have its own peculiar controversies. But to get an underlying sense of the political direction we should probably turn away from the front pages and the Twitter storms, the polling and the punditry. Instead, we should focus on the “subnational estimates of dwellings by tenure” that the Office of National Statistics helpfully provides. Perhaps for variety, also taking in London borough profiles from London Datastore. Or for the beginners, there is “Housing tenure over time” from the Trust for London.
Nationally about two thirds of us are owner-occupiers. In London, it is just over half. Already that tells us quite a lot about where the Conservatives win or lose at the polls. But what if we focus on London and seek to “drill down”. We had the Census this year which will offer a high level of accuracy about tenure down to the Ward level. The results are not due to be published until “late spring” next year – so shortly after the local elections. If we take Ravenscourt Park Ward in Hammersmith and Fulham, which I used to represent, the 2011 Census found that only 44.5 per cent of households were owner-occupiers, a reduction of 6.4 percentage points from 2001. My guess is that the 2021 figure will be lower still, though the decline may have slowed.
But to keep us going, other surveys do provide enough of a sample for borough estimates. Hackney has only 28.7 per cent of owner-occupiers. That is not only the lowest percentage in London, but in the entire nation. Is it surprising that the Conservatives struggle there? What about Bromley, the strongest borough for the Conservatives? There, the rate of owner-occupiers is a roaring 70.9 per cent.
Here are the generally pretty miserable owner-occupation rates in some other very strong Labour boroughs:
- Barking and Dagenham 5o per cent
- Brent 46 per cent
- Haringey 43 per cent
- Islington 32 per cent
- Lambeth 36 per cent
- Newham 39 per cent
- Lewisham 45 per cent
- Newham 39 per cent
- Southwark 33 per cent
- Tower Hamlets 30 per cent.
By contrast, here are some of the other Conservative boroughs apart from Bromley:
- Barnet 60 per cent
- Bexley 73 per cent
- Havering 74 per cent
- Hillingdon 63 per cent
- Kensington & Chelsea 40 per cent
- Wandsworth 48 per cent
- Westminster 36 per cent.
Those statistics show a pretty clear pattern. In strong Labour territory the home ownership rates are well below even the London average. The only exception is Barking and Dagenham – which might indicate the Conservatives have a prospect of making some progress. The home ownership rate has been gently nudging up there. Among the Conservative boroughs we see much higher home ownership rates. There are special factors for Westminster and for Kensington and Chelsea – a central location pushing up the ratio of private rental properties.
What about some of the marginal boroughs? Labour hold Croydon, Enfield, Harrow, and Merton. But the Conservatives are in contention in these areas. The “subnational estimates of dwellings by tenure” offer some mild encouragement. The most recent estimates offered are for 2019. In each case, the rate is very slightly up on the previous year and also the total is well above the London average. The owner-occupiers in Croydon amount to 60.5 per cent of households, up from 60 per cent the year before. In Enfield it’s 60.6 per cent up from 60.1 per cent. Harrow is on 66.2 per cent up from 65.7. Merton is on 60.3 per cent, up from 59.9 per cent.
Good luck to them. But Conservatives in London set out on their campaigning with a serious structural disadvantage compared to the rest of the country. The home ownership rate is seriously behind the rest of the country. London needs to be levelled up. That should include a credible opportunity to the 22 per cent of Londoners in social housing. It should also include a big increase in the supply of attractive new homes. Outside London, it is encouraging to see how often we have beautiful new homes being built. Invariably the new housing in London is hideous. The Mayor has a fetish for tower blocks. Concrete jungles that represent a hostile environment especially for those wishing to settle down and start a family. A Conservative revival means the Government addressing these difficulties. We can hardly expect the municipal socialists in the capital to cut their own electoral throats by more enlightened planning policies. They will also have been reading the subnational estimates of dwellings by tenure…