There has been a lively debate on Lib Dem Voice this week on housing policy. Well-argued articles from Alex Marsh, Mike Tuffrey and Stephen Gilbert have ignited equally interesting debates in the comments. All sorts of intriguing policy ideas have been proposed to address the growing crisis in housing supply.
However, a great idea is just the starting point on the long journey to create a successful policy. For a mainstream party with ambitions to form the next government, it is crucial that ideas enjoy popular support with voters. Housing development invokes strong feelings amongst the electorate, both among would-be first time buyers who are priced out of the housing market, and existing residents who cherish the existing shape and size of their community. In a democracy, both sides of the argument ought to be captured. Sadly, our electoral system is biased to give a disproportionately strong voice to existing communities.
First of all, under First Past The Post, major parties with Number 10 in their sights need to appeal to the centreground – swing voters in marginal constituencies. They are a narrow portion of the electorate, but nothing can be proposed that upsets these voters, even when it is at the expense of the interests of everyone else. This disease inflicts every party’s manifesto, and the chapter that details housing policy is no exception. Given two-thirds of households in the UK own their home, a centreground voter is a homeowner. The voice of the growing numbers of voters who rent their home in the Private Rented Sector is muted by the electoral system. Proportional representation would put their voice on a more equal footing.
The electoral system also has another negative effect on PRS tenants. Given wards and constituencies are organised geographically, that means MPs and councillors are predominantly accountable to long-term residents. PRS tenants are far more transient, but as they frequently hop from house to house, they inevitably move from ward to ward and constituency to constituency. Not only does this decrease the likelihood that a PRS tenant is on the electoral register, it also makes holding their representatives to account nigh on impossible, given they are unlikely to cast judgement on the same candidate between elections. Larger wards and constituencies would lessen this problem, as the house-hopping tenant would be less likely to cross an electoral border when moving. Of course larger wards and constituencies would need to be multi-member to cope with their size. This gives rise to a system of proportional representation.
Electoral reform is not just about giving political parties a fairer share of elected representatives. It is about enfranchising all members of society; giving everyone the same opportunity to make sure their voice is heard. We will only get policies that fairly reflect the needs of everyone when we get a system of proportional representation. Until then, I fear PRS tenants will continue to be let down by the political system.