Opinion: Private sector tenants are disenfranchised

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.

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13 Comments

  • David Boothroyd 10th Jul '11 - 5:47pm

    This is a very weak argument and smacks of another attack of LibDem disease, in which every possible problem in the British political system is ascribed to the lack of a proportional voting system. True it is that private tenants frequently move and cross boundaries, but you would have to have enormous wards and authorities to make the majority of moves come within them. That would mean everyone else would lose their local representative and have to share. One of the worst aspects of the history of local government in Britain is that local authorities have become larger and larger and therefore less and less local.

  • One of the first acts of this rotten coalition government, with regards to housing, was to axe the proposed regulation of the private rental sector:

    http://blogs.findlaw.co.uk/solicitor/2010/06/landlord-register-and-private-rented-sector-regulations-scrapped.html

    For a member of a political party to say that we need PR before any political party will listen to a minority is disgraceful. Is that what you really think? What kind of party is it that will not take the side of one section of the population whose rights are being abused by a larger section? If that’s the case (which it appears to be) then the Lib Dems really are nothing more than neo-con, libertarian loons.

    The percentage of housing stock left empty is greater than the percentage increase in the population over the last decade. Areas of the Country that experienced no population growth experienced hyper-inflationary rises in house prices during the same period. The problem is clearly on the demand side – demand was artificially increased by lending greater and greater amounts of unsustainable debt to people, which in turn forced up prices. Yet, repeatedly, we hear people on this forum deny that the problem has anything to do with the artificial demand and the bail-out of bad lenders and borrowers with low interest rates.

    If we believe that the Bank of England slashed interest rates to stimulate the economy, rather than what any cynic might see as an attempt to prop up house prices, then there is surely an argument for redressing the balance by altering the tax system to hit those who have artificially benefitted – especially buy-to-letters. The very first steps to redress the balance should be to remove the council tax exemption for empty houses and second homes. Capital Gains Tax needs to be increased on second homes and possibly introduced for principle residences. A special tax for buy-to-let should be introduced and rogue landlords letting to those on housing benefit should be forced to maintain their properties to a minimum standard (the behaviour of many landlords is a complete disgrace in this regard).

    The economically literate solution is to introduce a Land Value Tax as a substitute for other taxes.

    The future of this Country is doomed as long as fiscal and monetary policies continue to support those that own property at the expense of those that don’t. It’s only a decade since houses were sensibly priced – prices will continue to fall regardless until equilibrium is reached, but the pace is far too slow. To get our economy moving again we need to ensure that those who vicariously seek to profit from other people’s labour by hoarding property are punished, whilst those that work are rewarded. However, the Tory party has always represented the interests of the idle landowners. What a shame the Lib Dems are now supporting them as well, given the historical outlook of the Liberal party towards land ownership and economic rent-seeking.

  • I think that both David and Steve have read too much into the argument. Duncan never said that PR would solve all problems our that nothing would be solved without them. He merely showed an example of where the current system fails to represent certain people and how STV would be an improvement.

    @ David
    I would turn your argument around and day that people are less likely to have a local representative under the current system. In a single member constituency if you don’t get on with your single “representative” then you have no I’ve else to turn to. Also, the majority don’t have one they voted for so are less likely to relate to the one they have.

    Under a multimember system, not only would they have more choice over who to take their issues to, they’ll also be much more likely to have someone they voted for, let alone someone with reasonably similar views, so I’d say that people would haver better local representation under multimember constituencies.

    @ Steve
    I found myself agreeing with the measures you suggested should be taken. I think that the majority are Lib Dem policy but you’re quite right that we’re not getting them through within this coalition. Hopefully you’ll help us get a majority next time! 😉

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jul '11 - 12:57am

    What kind of party is it that will not take the side of one section of the population whose rights are being abused by a larger section?

    One which lives in a first-past-the-post democracy, where the larger section is clearly the winner. That was rather his point.

  • @Andrew Suffield

    I understand his point, but you appear to have completely missed my point (thereby reinforcing my point).

    So you therefore think that as a political party the Lib Dems are incapable of representing a minority because of first past the post? What a cop out.

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jul '11 - 11:42am

    @ Steve – I think you need to dial down the coffee intake on sunday evenings. Your allegation that Duncan’s article said that “…we need PR before any political party will listen to a minority is disgraceful” is obviously not the case. Duncan was not advocating this, in fact he was pointing out that the current political system makes this more liekly, and that we should change our political system. You don’t like the Tories, or neo-cons, and i suspect that that view is fairly widely held by libdems too. In other words, don’t get over-excited, you’re amongst friends.

    As to the substance of your argument that house prices went up because of credit not actual demand, i would half agree. However, i would also say that actual demand was a factor. Barker estimated that circa 223,000 households are formed every year in the UK, but we have consistently built below this number of new homes. There will have been conversions of existing houses into flats which will have soaked up some of this extra household formation, but ultimately, it was both insufficient supply and credit-fuelled stimulation of demand that led us to where we are now. And remember, it is not population numbers you need to consider, it is households. If a couple divorce, for example, there is a demand for an extra household even though there are are still only two people.

  • “The Lib Dems, as the third party in a two party system, are incapable of influencing the political discourse to represent the people who would benefit from their housing policies. ”

    What’s the point of your existence then? You’re effectively saying that it is pointless voting Lib Dem because the Lib Dems have no influence over the government. Well, quite. I concur.

    “unless you believe that Labour or the Conservatives are not protecting home-owners for electoral gain? Which you appear not to believe.”

    On what evidence do I appear not to believe that Labour and the Tories are not protecting home-owners for electoral gain? I regard Labour’s attitude to the housing/credit bubble as the biggest mark against their tenure. However, the behaviour of this government is even more appalling with regards to housing – see the link above about the axing of the regulations for the private rental sector – see the numerous idiotic comments from Grant Shapps with regards to the proposed FSA regulations – look at his most recent comments suggesting that mates should get together to share a mortgage.

    @LondonLiberal
    “and that we should change our political system”

    Nah, just a Lib Dem cop out. We can’t do anything until the electoral system changes, therefore it’s the voters fault for keeping FPTP It takes a Lib Dem to come up with an article stating that PR is preventing the Lib Dems from taking action. YOU’RE IN GOVERNMENT – DO SOMETHING.

    “If a couple divorce, for example, there is a demand for an extra household even though there are are still only two people.”

    That is not the definition of economic demand. You are confusing it with desire (or need). Demand is a function of the willingness and ability to pay for something. If a divorced couple split, and they are both working, then their individual ability (i.e. demand) to pay for a house halves. A half plus a half = one, i.e. the demand is the same as before they split (or more realistically there is less demand for a family sized house and more demand for one-bed flats, but crucially, the amount of cash/credit available to purchase a house has not changed, in fact it’s probably less because of the transaction costs of selling the family house).

    The rental value of properties where I live in Leicester is exactly the same as it was a decade ago. House prices are currently 125% higher in nominal terms, after peaking at 175% higher in 2007. Rents remained flat, whilst house prices soared. That means that demand/supply in the form of peoples’ wages remained flat (i.e. there was and is no difference in the supply necessary to meet the demand). The rise in prices, here, was entirely driven by credit expansion, although it is likely that a small fraction of the inflation in the South –East was driven by a shortage of new-build.

  • mike cobley 11th Jul '11 - 2:15pm

    Duncan’s article is overstating the benefits of proportional representation – just because PR would permit an authentic correlation of seats to votes, this does not mean that policies will automatically be dealt with in a more enlightened manner. Beyond PR, we also need to open up the arena of legislation to the public at large. Chris Huhne’s ‘People’s Veto’ is the kind of thing whereby the people can directly influence policy, be it in housing or transport or utility supply or whatever. We need a popular politicial involvement that is more sophisticated than just sticking a cross in a box every few years.

  • I agree that our voting system often bypasses the more transient members of our society, and I have often thought about this as I have canvassed, and on polling days. I don’t necessarily think introducing PR would do much to re-involve those (informally and inadvertently) excluded. After all, we have introduced rolling registers, large scale postal voting etc as an antidote to this. Get real, larger constituencies, so more moves are within the same constituency, are going to have little or no effect on turnout!

    What will re-enfranchise voters is a real proportionate increase in incomes – I am not sure whether or not any research has been done to correlate voting and income levels, when controlling for age and any other relevant factors, but I would take bets they are fairly closely correlated. So, the new politics needs to look at policies to detach at least some parties from a too close relationship from big business (a good time, considering the Murdoch issues at present), and also to have an objective to reverse the recent pattern of the gap between the richer and poorer growing larger. We need to demonstrate, not pay lip service to “We’re all in this together”. dare I say it, but in housing policy terms, maybe we need more publicly / socially provided rented housing??

  • I found Duncan’s overall argument unconvincing.
    I didn’t see any real connection between the electoral systems being used for the various levels of government we have in this country (parish, local/unitary, county, parliament & EU) and how this impacts housing development and supply.

    Housing development is largely a planning issue, which as any one with a passing interest in planning matters would know that at present any one in the country can make comment on any planning application in any other part of the country. And as we know from this experience, every one can have their voice heard, however it doesn’t mean that it will have any impact on the final decision.

    Yes, any electoral system will have problems creating and maintaining a relationship between the electors and their elected representatives. Duncan in his article gives the example of mobile electors, however, our experience with MEP’s shows there are no great benefits to be derived from having larger constitutency and PR.

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