At the end of a long, dismal and vacuous Conservative election campaign, it’s hard to pick out many standout scenes amid the monotony of Boris Johnson’s Get Brexit Done sloganeering. Which is why there was something cathartic about the moment that Lee Anderson, Tory parliamentary candidate for Ashfield, donned a black cagoule, stared into a mobile phone camera, and – with a zeal too seldom witnessed in contemporary politics – introduced himself to the wider world with a denunciation of “nuisance tenants”.
“These people, who have to live somewhere, let’s have them in a tent in the middle of a field,” he grimaced. “Six o’clock every morning, let’s have them up.” Hood raised, face red, wind howling around him: Anderson looked every inch like the sadistic PE teacher of your nightmares – which, to be fair, feels like the right look for anyone advocating for the establishment of forced labour camps. “Let’s have them in the field, picking potatoes,” he continued, “back in the tent, cold shower, lights out, six o’clock, same again the next day.”
Why not? Those on the wrong side of the divide that has riven Britain across a decade of post-crash politics have grown accustomed to insecurity and discipline – both at the hands of the market, which has placed many of the fundamental building blocks of a secure and dignified life out of reach, and the state, which has unleashed a blizzard of cuts and sanctions upon anyone falling short. Wearily familiar, too, is Anderson’s moralising tone: the decent man whose patience has finally run out, knuckles whitening with the strain of preventing his contempt for late capitalism’s losers getting the better of him.
“Tories reject move to ensure rented homes fit for human habitation,” ran a real newspaper headline in 2016; nearly a third of the party’s MPs, including the prime minister, are currently landlords (along with 11% of Labour MPs, and a quarter of Lib Dems). Little wonder that Anderson, a one-time Labour supporter whose “rare, brave” comments have been welcomed by Conservatives leading a fight back against “anti-landlord bigots”, now feels more at home on the other side of the party divide. His words were extreme. But the politics behind them reveal an unacknowledged faultline running through this election: it is a battle, broadly-speaking, between the rentiers and the renters – and the winners will define this country for a generation.
After nine years of Conservative-led government, every type of housing provision in Britain is mired in crisis. What should be a safe, secure place has become unattainable for millions, repurposed as a vehicle for speculation on the global markets. For many, buying a home has become a pipe dream. In the mid-1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was proclaiming her vision of a property-owning democracy, it took the average couple in their late twenties three years to save up a deposit and more than half of 25-34 year olds in outer London owned their own home; the equivalent figures today are 19 years and 16% respectively, while home ownership in England is at a 30-year low.
Council housing, which at the start of Thatcher’s premiership accommodated 42% of the population, now has room for only 8% of us; a million people are languishing on social housing waiting lists, and Grenfell’s horror has come to symbolise the institutional neglect of what remains.
So for most young people – and increasingly, many in middle age and beyond as well – the only recourse available is to the private rented sector, where vast asymmetries of power between landlord and tenant mean that the latter can be evicted on a whim with only two months’ notice. Even in the best of properties, that profound, amorphous precarity takes a toll on everyone, not least the nearly two million privately-renting households with children, or the one in three millennials who are on course to remain private tenants all the way into old age.
Most properties, of course, are anything but the best of them. Generation Rent, a national campaign group, has just been running a #VentYourRent exercise encouraging private tenants to share their experiences. Scroll through the testimonies and you’ll see stories of overcrowding, dodgy electrics, rat infestations and rogue landlord bullying fill every page. For the privilege of watching black mould bloom, renters are paying three times more on housing as a proportion of their income than their grandparents did.
Recognising the scale of the problem, Labour has put landlord regulation and rent controls at the heart of its manifesto – a sharp distinction from both the Conservatives, who have vowed to strengthen landlords’ rights and failed to build a single one of the 200,000 new “starter homes” they promised in 2015. The Liberal Democrats’ loan to rent scheme, meanwhile, involving the extension of government-backed tenancy deposit loans to new renters under the age of 30 already likely to be saddled with a mountain of debt, has generated widespread mirth on social media (“They really are the Woke Landlords party,” observed one critic on Twitter).
Labour’s position is the culmination of pressure from a new wave of housing movements and private renters’ unions, including Generation Rent but also local activist communities like the London Renters Union and Acorn, who collaborated on a groundbreaking Renter Manifesto for the election. The Residential Landlords Association has warned that the party’s plans would provoke a “serious rental housing crisis”, seemingly unaware that this is a perfect description of what we are living through right now.
Like the footage that emerged earlier this year showing a Tory cabinet minister in black tie grabbing a young, female climate crisis protester by the neck, Anderson’s intervention was starkly illuminating: it underscored the fact that this election offers a dramatic choice between one party who understand that things cannot stay the way they are, and another who are unapologetic about defending the status quo.
As things stand, the beneficiaries of that status quo are those who control, trade and live off existing assets and are thus liberated from dependence on the productive economy – including hedge funds, private equity firms and other purveyors of footloose, financialised capital, but also those who own their own homes outright or earn an income from pension funds, as well as actual landlords. The far bigger group that is losing out encompasses not only private tenants, but everyone reliant on wages and public spending for survival, not to mention all those who would prefer not to see the planet burn.
There are, of course, a great many older people in the first category who, seeking an insurance policy against the spiralling costs of social care, are understandably protective of their assets and wary of radical change. Labour’s challenge is to convince them that efforts to rebalance the economy will improve rather than diminish their lives in the years to come, and that curbing the domination of market logic – in housing, as well as many other areas of society – will bring immense benefits to their children, grandchildren and the wider community as well.
This election represents a reckoning at the ballot box: between rentier interests on the one side, and a more hopeful, equitable alternative on the other. The majority of Britain’s tenants, be they renting from the council or privately, will be praying that it leaves Anderson with time on his hands come Friday morning. If he’s looking for something to do, picking vegetables in a field would be a great start.
• Jack Shenker is a writer based in London and Cairo. His latest book is Now We Have Your Attention