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Poll Position

By comparison to 2022, this year has been rather steady, at least in terms of political polling. Britain Elects’ poll of polls tracker generates an average share across all published polls and recorded the Conservatives’ share as 26% on 2 January, 25% on 30 November. The equivalent figures for Labour were 47% and 44%.

Consistently strong leads in the polls and several stunning by-election results served to bolster the sense that the Labour Party is a government-in-waiting. According to Ipsos, nearly 2 in 3 Britons expect Labour to form the next government.  

Part of the reason for this is the damage wrought to the Conservative brand since 2019, particularly in terms of sound economic management. As a colleague has put it, the next election could well be a case of “better the devil you don’t know…”

Alongside this mainly repetitive pattern in headline voting intentions, there have been some important developments in public sentiment and discourse in relation to issues which look likely to feature at the next general election. 

One of these is housing – an issue which Bagehot, The Economist’s political columnist, identified as the starting point of “most problems in British politics”. He also framed the ‘Builders versus the Blockers’ conversation on housing this year, subsequently adopted by Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy among others.

Here are ten features of public opinion in relation to housing, drawn from Ipsos polling on the topic this year.

1. Labour continues to perform well among mortgage holders, and owners.

This tenure has been the last remaining ‘bellwether’ tenure since Labour won over private renters in 2017. Across September to November, Labour’s share among mortgage holders was 47%, much improved on the estimated 33% it got in 2019. This matters because of the tenure’s voting power; mortgagors were 25% more likely than private renters to turn out to vote in 2019.

2. The public have a dim view of the Conservative’s record 

Just 18% of voters think the Conservatives are doing a good job at improving housing in Britain. Those who voted Tory in 2019 are more generous but, even among this group, just 29% were positive. Importantly, in June, three-quarters of Britons attributed rising mortgages to the government’s economic policies.

3. This translates into a strong Labour lead on the issue.

Asked which party has the best policies on housing, 40% say Labour, 14% the Conservatives (the party’s largest lead of 11 policy issues). No surprises really given this is the historical norm, but Labour had been trailing on the issue at the end of the 2000s.

4. Housing has become more salient in voters’ minds.

In 2005, on the eve of the general election, just 5% of people spontaneously mentioned housing among the most important issues facing the country. It simply wasn’t top-of-mind and its salience fell to similar levels during the pandemic having been 17% at the 2019 general election. Our last measure was 18%.

5. The housing crisis is local and global.

Ipsos found housing to be a top five issue determining the way people voted at May’s elections (ahead of immigration). While all housing is local, housing crises exist worldwide. A global study this year found new housing supply to be the top infrastructure investment priority (among 14 options) in Australia, Ireland, Canada, Chile, Germany, Netherlands, and Poland.

6. The housing crisis is an affordability crisis, especially for renters…

At the turn of the year, we found a third of private renters reported spending at least half of their personal monthly income on their rent. In May, we found half rated the availability of affordable properties to rent as a very serious problem. Social housing is also believed to be in short supply. 

7. Under-supply is seen as a political failing, but people matter too…

Overly restrictive planning features near the top among a list of reasons for the undersupply of housing but, in the public’s eyes, comes behind political disinterest and local opposition.

True to form, the same Ipsos polling found public support for new housebuilding to be very conditional on the detail and practicalities. The public are more ‘maybe’ than nimby or yimby, implying a need for astute local leadership on the issue.

8. Confidence is low…

Two-thirds lack confidence Britain will build enough homes in the future. Most people expect homelessness to get worse. Many aren’t sure that a change of government will make things better.

The public are bold on housing and supportive of action – this year we added provisions contained within the Renters Reform Bill to our list of rent caps, taxing second homes, and extending Right to Buy (yes, that) of popular policies. Above all, people want to see evidence of action because they haven’t seen much so far.

9. …but positivity is possible (and necessary).

Our research for Prince William and the Homewards initiative showed that facts, figures and case studies have the potential to shift perceptions into more positive territory. When people are shown that schemes like Housing First can make a sustainable difference to homelessness and can deliver savings and alleviate pressure on public services, they become more engaged and more encouraged that some progress is possible.

10. Don’t assume people are as interested as you!

In May, two in five Britons and a similar proportion of private renters said they had not heard of the Renters’ Reform Bill. And while private renters are widely recognized as having had the rawest deal from actions taken by the Conservative government in recent years, this group has the lowest propensity to vote.

This depends on the issue – in June, three-quarters of Britons said they were following news about rising interest rates very or fairly closely, a higher proportion than were following stories about public sector strikes and the war in Ukraine.

The next general election campaign will likely amplify, but also disrupt, what we’ve witnessed during 2023. As it is on much else, Labour may be in poll position on housing but the race isn’t won yet.

Ben Marshall

Ben is a Research Director at Ipsos UK and long-time commentator on public opinion and housing. He has managed for-policy research and evaluation projects for a range of clients including the Chartered Institute for Housing, Shelter, DWP, DLUHC, The Royal Foundation (supporting Homewards), Create Streets and The Economist.

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We built the Spitfires. Now we can build the houses.

Seventy-five years ago, Britain was in the midst of a General Election that would transform the country for generations to come. And Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide General Election victory was built on the foundations of Labour’s housing, construction and town planning policies.

To mark the 75th anniversary of Labour’s 1945 General Election victory, Paul Dimoldenberg introduces his new book:

Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour’ – The story of the 1945 General Election.

In 1945, the British people took a very practical view of the future. They wanted a decent home, a job and not to have to worry when they became ill or fell on hard times. In short, they wanted a better life and saw Labour as the vehicle through which these aspirations could be achieved.

Labour promised ‘bread and butter’ improvements which secured the votes of working-class and middle-class families. With over 2 million houses damaged or destroyed by the blitz, over half of them in London, the scale of destruction throughout Britain explained the desperate need for new homes.  Again, and again, homes and jobs were foremost in the minds of voters.  Labour recognized these as the priorities. And the voters believed Labour would provide them. The Labour Manifesto promised:

“Housing will be one of the greatest and one of the earliest tests of a Government’s real determination to put the nation first. Labour’s pledge is firm and direct – it will proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean centralising and pooling of building materials and components by the State, together with price control. If that is necessary to get the houses as it was necessary to get the guns and planes, Labour is ready.

And housing ought to be dealt with in relation to good town planning – pleasant surroundings, attractive lay-out, efficient utility services, including the necessary transport facilities.

There should be a Ministry of Housing and Planning combining the housing powers of the Ministry of Health with the planning powers of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning; and there must be a firm and united Government policy to enable the Ministry of Works to function as an efficient instrument in the service of all departments with building needs and of the nation as a whole.”

In Cardiff, James Callaghan recalled:

“Most questions were about demobilisation from the Forces or housing shortages. In my innocence and good faith, I promised rapid action on both and during the campaign my main slogan became: ‘We built the Spitfires. Now we can build the houses’”.  

In Bishop Auckland, Hugh Dalton remembered:

“The big issues were pensions, housing and fear of a return to pre-war unemployment.”

At Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, picking up on the mood of the times, argued that:

“Low rents, spacious homes fitted with all the labour-saving appliances invented by modern domestic science, can be made available to all only if the task of house-building is organized on a national plan”.

In Preston, the Conservative MP, Julian Amery, described the grim reality for many:

“Much the biggest issue was housing. No new houses had been built since the war and there was fearful overcrowding. It was quite common to find eleven or twelve people sleeping in a single room, and in many of the slum districts there was virtually no sanitation”.

Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, describes the day-to-day impulses that led many to put their trust in Labour. In a letter to her father, she explained that:

“The people I know who are Labour, don’t vote Labour for ideals or belief, but simply because life has been hard for them, often an unequal struggle, and they think that only by voting Labour will their daily struggle become easier. They are all decent people who want an easier and gayer life”.

The historians are in full agreement. A.J.P. Taylor recognized the main concerns of the electorate:

“They cared only for their own future: first housing, and then full employment and social security. Here Labour offered a convincing programme”.

Arthur Marwick concurred:

“Public opinion polls showed that the issue which most concerned people was housing. Labour effectively presented itself as the party most strongly committed to social reform.”

Angus Calder agrees:

“Labour had been elected, above all, on the issue of housing”.

This was ‘retail politics’ at its most potent. As the historian Paul Addison concludes in ‘The Road to 1945’:

“A simple but vital point about the 1945 election is that Labour put the material needs of the average family above all else in its campaign”.

And Labour delivered. Over the next 5 years, Labour built one million new homes.

Of course, the situation in 2020 is radically different to the challenges of 1945. But there are some real parallels.

Recent analysis by Nathaniel Barker for ‘Inside Housing’ has revealed that areas with the most overcrowded housing have been worst hit by COVID-19. The area with the highest COVID-19 death rate (144.3 deaths per 100,00) and the biggest housing overcrowding problem (25.2% of homes are overcrowded) – is Newham in east London. Just as with the wartime blitz, there is a clear London focus to the problems caused by overcrowding. Of the 30 areas with the highest percentages of households living in overcrowded conditions, Barker explains:

“26 are in London. Part of that can likely be explained by the acute affordable housing shortages in the city”

Over the next few years, Labour needs to learn from the 1945 experience, put the needs of the people at the forefront and develop a social housing programme for the 2020s and beyond.

‘Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour’ – The story of the 1945 General Election is available in e-book and paperback format at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08975HFS7/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_4Xc2Eb4B0AVT1 via @AmazonUK

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Foodbanks in Westminster.

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Paul Dimoldenberg</strong></span>
Paul Dimoldenberg

Paul Dimoldenberg was first elected to Westminster City Council in 1982. He was Leader of the Labour Opposition Group from 1987-1990 and from 2004-2015. He is the author of ‘The Westminster Whistleblowers’, published by Politicos in 2006, which tells the story of the Westminster ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.