The Politics of Private Landlordism

by Brian Lund

The burgeoning private renter legion have started to show their discontent in the ballot box, with implications for future general elections. In 2010, the Conservative Party held a 4% lead over Labour among those who rented from private landlords. Yet by 2017, Labour had surged ahead to an impressive 23%.

Jeremy Corbyn, expressing his concerns about private landlord voting power, said in 2016:

You’re looking at several million people letting out one or two flats. And they can become a politically significant group. Particularly in marginal constituencies. So you will find all parties trimming towards them: landlords tend to be people who vote.

Indeed, just before the 2017 general election, a poll revealed 53.3% of private landlords intended to vote Conservative, 14.5% Labour, 11.8% Liberal Democrat and 7.9% UKIP. Concerns about private landlord ballot power may explain Labour’s tepid approach to private landlordism in its 2017 manifesto, which saw Corbyn’s more radical proposals, such as a Right to Buy for private tenants and a rent cap on all rents, abandoned. But Labour need not have been so cautious.

The number of households living in the private rental sector has continued its post 2002 upward trend, increasing 110% from 2002 to 2014. In 2015–16, an additional 224,000 households joined the private rental sector. Among households with children, the  number of private renters increased by 945,000 between 2005 and 2015. Renting has expanded rapidly in the regions (in the North East, by 210%) ― and has become disproportionately prevalent in deprived areas.

The absence of compulsory private landlord registration in England makes it impossible to tell how many private landlords exist. However, the rise of multiple properties leased by individual landlords suggests the number of landlords dwindles in comparison to the number of tenants. In 2010, 78% of private landlords owned only one rented property: this had dropped to 62% in 2016. Current figures estimate that 38% of all private landlord dwellings are now owned by landlords with five or more properties.

In voting terms, this means private tenant voters now outnumber private landlords by an estimated six to one.

While housing ranked sixth in the public concern list before the 2017 General Election, it was the third most important issue for private renters.  Private tenant discontent - and the desire to register this dissatisfaction in the ballot box - are understandable. As Rosie Walker, author of The Rent Trap, puts it:

A renter effectively pays not once but three times: first in rent, second as an unpaid caretaker of an inflating asset and third with the freedoms they forfeit. With the silent passing of every standing order, their roles, their status ― their class becomes more and more entrenched, and the possibility of escape reduced.

This picture was confirmed by the government’s white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, which revealed that private renters paid 53% of their weekly household incomes (45% after benefits) in rent. Of these private renters, 28% are living in ‘non decent homes’ with low levels of space. At the short end of the private rental market, ‘beds in sheds’ and ‘rogue’ landlords have come to resemble ‘Tom-All-Alone's’, the slum area occupied by Jo, the road crossing sweeper,  in Dickens’ Bleak House.

Voter turnout was the key to Labour’s success. Labour persuaded more young people to register and vote. In addition, young people living outside the parental home are overwhelmingly private landlord tenants.

Yet ‘generation rent’ is getting older. The proportion of households aged 34 - 44 living in the private landlord sector increased from 8.6% in 2003/4 to 26% in 2015/6. Private tenants aged aged 45-54 increased from 5% to 14% in the same period. When private renters have children, the average length of stay in tenures increases (figures show that an increase in the number of renter households with children correlates to an increased average length of stay).

Labour may be able to capitalise on this ageing generation of renters. Longer stay makes registration and voting more likely. In addition, there was about a 5% swing to Labour between 2015 and 2017 in the 40 to 49 age group.  

What’s more, the recent surge in the number of private renters presents an electoral problem for the Conservative Party. There are signs that private renting is beginning to decrease ― the number of households moving from owner-occupation to private renting dropped from 170,000 in 2013/14 to 135,000 in 2015/6. But private tenant discontent runs deep, and even modest reforms to the private landlord sector will be difficult for a Conservative government to achieve.

The publication of the MP financial interest register following the 2017 general election revealed that 123 MPs, mainly Conservative, earn extra money by renting out homes and private property. The private landlord interest is over-represented in Parliament, especially by Conservative MPs, and even a modest amendment to the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill ― to make private landlords undertake electrical safety checks ― was defeated with 72 Tory MPs, also residential landlords, voting against the motion.

Housing tenure is now a significant factor that influences voter behaviour. The proportion of households renting privately is rapidly approaching its 1965 level when Labour passed legislation restricting rents to ‘fair’ levels. Today, private landlord tenants are over-represented in marginal seats. Despite Labour’s success in mobilising the student vote, private renter participation in the 2017 general election remained well below the homeowner rate.

There are rich dividends for Labour if it manages to improve private tenant registration and turnout and strengthen its appeal among an ageing ‘generation rent’.

About the author

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Brian Lund is Visiting Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is author of Housing Politics in the United Kingdom: Power, Planning and Protest, Bristol: Policy Press (2016) and Understanding Housing Policy (third edition) Bristol: Policy Press (2017).
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