Are homeowners more conservative?
Traditionally, we think people who own property vote for parties on the right, but new research says otherwise
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.
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”