As Isabel Hardman wrote yesterday, many interpret Labour’s failure to fail on a bigger scale in yesterday’s election results as the worst possible result for the party. Sadiq Khan, who had nominated Corbyn for the leadership, won comfortably in London. Predicted to lose 150 or more council seats, by midday Labour was down a net 26 seats. This neither puts them in an encouraging position from which to build towards the 2020 election nor signifies a disaster which might provoke Jeremy’s Corbyn’s defenestration and replacement with a more electable leader.
But the Conservatives would be very unwise to take comfort from the results. Instead they should ask themselves why Corbyn’s Labour party has not collapsed in the way they assumed it would – and why Khan has just won the mayoral race. It seems plain that Corbyn’s brand of socialism is a good deal more popular than they had given it credit. They took one look at the man, giggled and told themselves that 2020 was in the bag – Corbyn is a Michael Foot, only with less appeal, and just look where Footy left the party.
But there is a big difference between now and 1983. Thirty three years ago there was a big chunk of working class Labour voters about to break away and take advantage of the right-to-buy to become homeowners. Mortgages had recently been deregulated and houses were relatively cheap. Foot or no Foot, socialism was on a downward trajectory, pushed out of the way by personal aspiration expressed through the housing market.
To understand what is going to happen in politics over the next few years you need to understand what is happening in the property market now. Few of the children of those aspirational 1980s homeowners can buy property themselves. They cannot even find decent places to rent at an affordable price. There is a huge and growing constituency of people under 40 whom the property market has failed.
It isn’t really a failure of the free market. Supply is subject to an artificial shortage through the planning system, while demand is not rationed at all. But it is certainly a political failure – the market has essentially been rigged in favour of existing homeowners in the belief that rising house prices make people feel wealthy and happy. The Blair and Brown governments were every bit as guilty of this as have been Conservative governments.
But what if you can’t afford to get on the housing ladder? What if you are denied the chance to buy property — an asset which has come to signify having been a success in the capitalist system? The higher house prices go, the more people will feel left stranded, and the more likely voters are to start asking: why should I vote for capitalism when it has done nothing for me? Socio-economically, Britain is gradually reverting to the 19th century, where most people were tenants, living in properties owned by a small class of propertied landlords. The difference now is that it isn’t just the propertied who have the vote. When Sadiq Khan made the housing crisis a priority of his campaign, people listened – and voted for him.
I don’t think Corbyn will win in 2020, but if the masses remain frozen out of the property market sooner or later it is going to become possible for a general election to be won by a party far to the left of what has been electable in the past 30 years. The Conservatives should be extremely worried. Their task of the next couple of decades is to find a way of bringing down real house prices and so broaden property-ownership – or die.
The most emphatic result on Thursday, by the way, was a referendum in St Ives, Cornwall, where 83 per cent of voters in a referendum backed a proposal to place covenants on all new homes to limit them to being bought by full-time residents, not investors or second home-buyers. That the referendum was held at all is as a result of Coalition planning reforms, which allow communities to write their own ‘neighbourhood plans’. It has come up with an idea of the sort of housing policy the Conservatives are going to need to consider nationwide if they want to survive.