Back in January, Sir Keir Starmer did a strange thing. He staged a big set-piece speech in which he announced that his government would be steered by several of what he called national missions. But he wasn’t quite ready to say what they were.
Six and a bit weeks on and we finally have them. Labour’s five national missions will be the economy, the NHS, crime, climate change and education. Missing in action? Any mention of housing.
If Starmer does end up as Prime Minister, and this absence does end up being more or less indicative of his interest in tackling the housing crisis, it could be a very lucky break for the Conservatives.
Not that the party really deserves such breaks, of course. The Government’s own handling of the issue has been woeful; bold reform was abandoned in the name of salvaging limited reform which was then abandoned in turn.
Even the libertarian wing of the Tory tribe, at least in Parliament, has developed a gaping blind spot on the issue. It was depressing, but predictable, that Liz Truss took the time to brand housing targets Stalinist, but had no criticism to spare for the dysfunctional planning system they are brute-force attempts to correct.
But that’s luck for you.
The long-term results of the housing crisis on the Conservative vote have been litigated at length, both here and elsewhere: voters are not drifting rightwards as they age because it is becoming harder to acquire homes and families; those that do have paid more and waited longer than their parents and have little reason to thank the Government.
A sufficiently strategic and ruthless Labour government could compound and accelerate the problem in numerous ways.
Inside Labour’s comfort zone, policies such as rent controls and big expansions in council and social housing hugely expands the class of voter who owe an important part of their day-to-day existence to the state.
But it is also very much in the Opposition’s electoral interest to make it easier to buy homes in the so-called Blue Wall.
Many of these constituencies are already absorbing new voters as cost pressures force people out of London. As Dr Patrick English of YouGov previously pointed out on this site, the average age in the blue wall is trending downward, against the national trend.
That’s a recipe for more Brightons and Canterburys, and a Labour government has no reason to prevent it. What electoral price would they pay if a sufficiently ambitious Housing Secretary started a Robert Jenrick-like push of approving appeals, concentrating on true blue seats? Or issued a string of development orders to turbo-charge building in London’s leafy commuter belt?
Conservative (and indeed Liberal Democrat) MPs could howl in impotent fury from the opposition benches, but they couldn’t actually prevent a Labour government from delivering a long-term structural advantage to itself akin to what the mass sale of council houses in the 1980s did for the Tories.
And ultimately they would only have themselves to blame, especially the Conservatives. The backbenchers have consistently scuppered every attempt to solve the housing crisis where it actually exists – the South – whilst ministers have time and again shrunk from using the powers they already have to deliver either homes or infrastructure.
In theory, the Conservatives could have effected the inverse of the Labour strategy outlined above, striking a Faustian bargain with the Shires in exchange for dramatically overhauling London’s planning system, in whole or in part, either through a targeted Metropolitan Planning Bill or, if the backbenchers insisted on going to the wall for the handful of their London colleagues with marginal seats, via development orders.
At the very least, this would have helped Labour-leaning urban voters continue living safely in the capital. It could also have boosted growth, delivered extra tax revenue for levelling up and, heck, improved people’s lives too.
That window has closed. Next year, a new one might open before Starmer. The Tories would be immensely fortunate if he, too, failed to exploit it.