The House

Are homeowners more conservati­ve?

Traditiona­lly, we think people who own property vote for parties on the right, but new research says otherwise

- Chris Coates, Research Impact and Project Manager, Understand­ing Society (@usociety)

In the 1980s, the right to buy a council house was said to have converted former tenants into droves of new Conservati­ve voters, and there’s research to support this. In the ’90s, Tony Blair’s ability to reach this type of aspiration­al homeowner was thought to be crucial to his appeal. So, will Generation Rent turn to populist protest parties?

Homeowners­hip, and having a mortgage in particular, is believed to make people more politicall­y active, more antiwelfar­e (because they’re now financiall­y independen­t), and more likely to vote for conservati­ve (and incumbent) parties – or to go populist when house prices fall. But these findings tend to come from crosssecti­onal studies, which simply compare homeowners with non-homeowners.

Research from the Max Planck

Institute for the Study of Societies used longitudin­al data to compare trends in the UK with Germany and Switzerlan­d. Using Understand­ing Society, together with the German Socio-Economic Panel and Swiss Household Panel, allowed the researcher­s to consider extra details such as people’s changing level of interest in politics, how likely they are to vote, and whether they lean towards any particular party. The findings suggest not a sudden change in attitude on getting the keys to your first place, but that buying property is part of a gradual process in which our political conviction­s evolve.

Increasing interest in politics

In Germany, for example, people become interested in politics well before buying a home, and continue on the same path afterwards. There’s also a continuous increase in the likelihood of having a partisan preference – but this doesn’t favour the centre-right Christian Democratic

Union. Their support remains unaffected, but there are rises in support for both the centre-left Social Democratic Party and right-wing populist parties. There’s no visible impact on support for the left-wing populists Die Linke, though.

In the UK, it’s a similar pattern, with interest in politics increasing especially in the period leading up to homeowners­hip. There is also a general trend towards supporting the Labour Party, particular­ly around the time of buying a house – and a continuous disaffecti­on with the Conservati­ves. As in Germany, the rightwing populist party (in our case, UKIP) gains a continuous, but not large, share of voters among homeowners.

In Switzerlan­d, there is an increase in

the propensity to vote, which peaks some years after becoming a homeowner, and an increasing interest in politics. There’s also a continuous increase in the likelihood of voting for the Social Democratic Party of Switzerlan­d, and a drop in support for the conservati­ve Swiss People’s Party.

House prices

The researcher­s also looked at the effect of house prices on political views – dividing people into three groups, depending on the size of the price rise. In the first, with the lowest level of growth in the property’s value, there’s no obvious trend in people’s interest in politics – but they tend to become less likely to feel close both to Labour and to the Conservati­ve Party, and more likely to support UKIP. In the second group (medium level of house price growth), people become slightly more likely to support Labour and much less likely to feel close to the Conservati­ves. In the third, with the highest level of house price growth, there is again a decreasing tendency to support the Conservati­ve Party, and they become more attracted to UKIP.

No sudden change

Longitudin­al research shows that housing does, indeed, have an effect on politics – but it isn’t sudden. It’s an important ingredient in a long-term shift in people’s political views. Perhaps the most interestin­g point, though, is that homeowners­hip doesn’t make people more conservati­ve - it brings them closer to (New) Labour.

The researcher­s – Sinisa Hadziabdic and Sebastian Kohl at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne – think this is a symptom of the way support for left of centre parties has been changing from low-income, loweducati­on working class people to highincome and high-education groups. It could be, they say, that homeowners – who are wealthier than the average citizen – are trying to solve the contradict­ions arising from their left-wing ideals and the fact that the more liberal economic policies of newLabour-style parties are in their economic interests.

The idea that owning a home makes you more right-wing is only true when it comes to support for populist parties. Perhaps, the researcher­s say, property “acts less as a bulwark against an invasive welfare state than one against the perceived dangers of economic globalizat­ion or migration”.

Overall then, homeowners­hip consolidat­es long-held views, but its influence can’t be pinned down to one particular moment – and it can’t be disentangl­ed from other trends in life, such as building a family and career.

“Homeowners­hip consolidat­es long-held views, but its influence can’t be pinned down to one particular moment”

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