Blog Post

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.

Blog Post

The Home Straight

Housing and a generation of new towns was a big theme of the Labour leader’s conference speech this October — rightly so

The battle lines have been drawn. October’s party conference season has seen the Conservatives and Labour start to position themselves ahead of next year’s general election on issues such as climate change, economic growth, education, and public health. And, as YouGov’s Patrick English put it, Labour has gone “hard on housing.”

It would be wrong to judge a party conference solely on its leader’s speech, but these are big moments (although we shouldn’t overstate the extent to which they cut through with voters). While Rishi Sunak’s keynote didn’t cover housing — the Prime Minister and Michael Gove had set out a housing plan previously in July — it was front and centre of Keir Starmer’s.

The Labour leader described “bulldozing” through Britain’s sclerotic planning system (and reforming it) to get houses built. He also sought to reframe conception of the often-not-green belt, referring to its car parks and wasteland as the ‘grey belt’. This drew a clear dividing line with Sunak who had previously criticised Labour’s approach to housebuilding as threatening the “concretisation” of Britain.

Starmer said he would “over-ride” local opposition in the national interest although, in more sober rhetoric, subsequently described getting the “balance right” in the central-local dynamic.

Echoing colleague Rachel Reeves, Labour’s leader described siding with the ‘builders’ not the ‘blockers’ using the language of an influential column by Bagehot in The Economist (Duncan Robinson used Ben Ansell’s analysis which showed that support for housebuilding is concentrated in major centres of support for Labour and also, importantly, the Red Wall).

Housing is political gold for Labour for three reasons. First, voters already put it in front on the issue — the party has a 28-percentage-point lead according to Ipsos’ most recent measure (a year ago) — so it starts from a position of strength.

Second, it is a valence issue where there is broad consensus meaning competence matters – but the public is critical of the Conservative’s record on housing in government — and, third, an image one, allowing Labour to talk to personal and national aspiration as well as fairness and the ‘securonomics’ apparently at the core of its strategy.

But to ‘weaponise’ rather than ‘neutralise’ housing as an issue, Labour must continue to increase its salience — just as the Conservatives have done this year with immigration — drawing out points of difference and cutting through apathy. The issue isn’t top-of-mind for enough people and has historically featured well down the list of vote-shaping considerations at general elections. When the going gets tough, and it usually does with delivering housing, even the tough don’t get going.

The premise for a step change in housebuilding isn’t as keenly felt by the public locally as it is nationally. While most people link insufficient supply with affordability, many don’t. Opinion is more ‘maybe’ than nimby or yimby. The why and what of building new homes are just as important to people as the where and how many?

Another challenge is that people are cynical about prospects for improvement. For example, Ipsos has found people putting political disinterest as the number one reason for the under-supply of housing, slightly ahead of local opposition with the restrictive planning system further behind.

On the face of it, both parties would subscribe to the Liberal Democrat’s position of building “the right homes in the right places”. Both support the reform of planning and further building. Labour’s 1.5 million homes in 5 years is similar in number to the Government’s current target. There appears to be consensus in the form of ‘gentle densification’, the use of design codes and standards, and behind the Renters’ (Reform) Bill.

In Manchester, Michael Gove announced just over £1 billion committed to 55 towns to be spent over 10 years, but it was Starmer’s new towns that was more eye-catching and potentially politically smart. When Gove reaffirmed the Conservatives commitment to housebuilding, some said that his strategy was to build in Labour’s backyard (with the exception of Cambridge) to assuage the concerns of Tory-leaning voters. Labour’s plan to build new towns would involve creating whole new backyards!

This is probably the reason why YouGov found 53% of Britons supporting ‘new town-sized settlements in areas with significant unmet housing need’ last week. Similarly, nine years ago, a survey for Lord Wolfson whose economic prize that year selected the best idea for building a garden city, found just 13% would oppose new garden cities. Little wonder though given the way these were presented to respondents in the survey!

There are considerable ifs, buts and maybes associated with building new settlements. But that doesn’t matter for now. At this stage, Labour is looking to boldly bring solidity to its pitch to voters that it has realistic ideas to fix and change Britain and will do things differently. It is asking questions of the Tories, of those involved in housing, of voters, and also of itself.

It’s too early for Labour to “go back to [its] constituencies and prepare for government”. But with potentially 6–12 months left before the election, it’s not premature to build on the progress it made at conference this week and prepare the detail of a plan for genuinely improving housing.

‘The home straight’ first featured on Ben’s blog: 

Ben Marshall

Ben Marshall 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.