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Ignoring housing will mean decades out of power for the Tories

Tom Zundel
January 26, 2024

The Conservative Party is facing electoral oblivion. This isn't a comment on the nature of the polls for the next election but rather a reflection on its ageing voter base. From Matt Hancock to Tom Tugendhat, Tories warn that more must be done to convince younger voters to give the party a chance. The problem is they don't seem interested.

The Conservatives have a forty-point gap in support between society's oldest and youngest groups, a four-fold increase since the early 1990s under John Major. Recent polling places their support with those under twenty-five at an unbelievable two per cent.

This is concerning enough for the party, particularly when factoring in Labour's proposal to extend voting to those aged sixteen and seventeen, an age group little more receptive to them as things currently stand. However, what's more, is that polling has shown that one of the oldest assumptions in politics that voters become more conservative and thus supportive of the Conservative Party as they age is no longer the case for millennials or Gen Z. The electoral sustainability of such a party is not particularly great.

Housing is an acute part of the Conservatives' problem of losing young people's support, and as such, it is essential to winning it back.

Housing has been a central plank of Conservative policy for decades. Churchill's 1951 election victory was much credited to a pledge to build 300,000 homes a year. Thatcher further developed the importance of housing by making the expansion of homeownership a core mission of hers. Right to Buy, allowing council tenants to buy their own homes, became the most extensive privatisation of her government. The focus on owning a home of your own is not surprising. Polls show that being an asset owner is one of the most significant influences on voting Conservative.

Housing is an acute part of the Conservatives' problem of losing young people's support, and as such, it is essential to winning it back Quote

However, therein lies the problem. Homeownership is an increasingly distant prospect for young Britons. Just under a third of those aged twenty-five to twenty-nine live with their parents, and those that don't are renting rather than owning.

This comes down to affordability. Until the 1990s, house prices averaged around four times the median income. Today, that's more than doubled, and the ratio of house price to income is at its highest since 1876. It now takes three decades to save a deposit for an average home in London. A young graduate today would only secure the dream of homeownership by the time they're in their fifties.

However, it doesn't have to be this way. At the last federal election, the Conservative Party of Canada received less than twenty per cent of the youth vote. However, the fifty-point deficit this produced with parties on the left among the under-thirties has fallen to just five points today. Polls show that the party's support with young voters has more than doubled in the two years since the last election.

So, what's been the magic formula for this turnaround? Housing. Around half of the party's gains have come in the months since its leader, Pierre Poilievre, revealed his housing plan.

A crucial part involves linking the government's funding for local authorities and provinces to housebuilding targets, penalising and rewarding those under and over-performing. His speeches often include attacks on the "gatekeepers", including regional governments that block housing development, and his promises to take them on have given his party the support of young prospective first-home buyers currently priced out of the market.

Given that the Centre for Cities found that the UK has, in comparison to other developed economies, delivered a shortfall of 4.3 million new homes between 1955 and 2015, housebuilding is clearly paramount to the question of how to make housing more affordable for people unable to get on the property ladder.

What can be done? Planning reform is high on the agenda, and politicians have been vocal about the need for less bureaucracy to unleash the construction of new homes. France and Japan are just two examples of countries who've relaxed their rules in the past two decades and reaped the rewards. In 2014, Tokyo alone had more new housing starts than all of England. Developing rules-based zoning, which most of Europe has used in some form since the 19th Century, is a sensible and practical step in that direction. Ultimately, though, it requires decisive leadership on the issue and a clear determination, as Pierre Poilievre has shown, to break free of the nimbyism that's blocked developed and fight on behalf of young, disillusioned voters.

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Tom Zundel is a Political and Media Consultant at Bridgehead Communications.

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