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Blue-Collar Conservatism in Britain?

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Blue-Collar Conservatism in Britain?

Boris Johnson’s party answers to a different voting coalition—and could deliver major reforms, especially in housing policy. January 10, 2020
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Britain’s Conservatives won an 80-seat majority last month on a streamlined platform, promising to “get Brexit done.” Since that thumping victory, a focus on the defining issue since 2016 has transitioned to hyperactivity on all fronts. The recent Queen’s Speech, in which the government outlined its legislative agenda, contained the most proposed bills since 2006. These ambitious plans join additional measures made possible by an end to parliamentary gridlock.

The government is wasting no time using its majority to tackle the issue of housing, with a plan to overhaul Britain’s complicated and economically harmful planning laws. Leaked details suggest that these reforms will be more than tinkering at the edges. According to one report, Boris Johnson’s government plans to let developers and homeowners build up to two extra floors on buildings without necessarily requiring planning approval. It also plans to loosen rules that limit building on greenbelt areas. If enacted, these policies would enrage housing restrictionists—and the angrier they get, the more likely it is that the government is on the right track.

For decades, Britain hasn’t built enough houses. In the 1970s, U.K. buyers, on average, could buy a home for less than three times their gross salary; today, they need more than seven times that sum. Since that period, the average inflation-adjusted price of a house has more than quadrupled. No other OECD country has seen such a steep rise.

And Britain fails to build houses where they’re needed most. As Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics points out, housebuilding trends run contrary to economic logic. Reviewing a 40-year comparison of the shrinking towns of Barnsley and Doncaster with the university cities of Cambridge and Oxford, Cheshire found that the struggling localities—despite their economic disadvantages—built almost twice as many homes as the prosperous ones. Restrictionists often blame rising costs on predatory buy-to-let landlords, the empty houses of the superrich, and loose monetary policy, but in this case, the simplest explanation is the most plausible: housing supply hasn’t kept up with housing demand.  

For too long, Conservative prime ministers delivered dire diagnoses of Britain’s housing crisis, then avoided addressing the issue. David Cameron instigated “Help to Buy,” a mortgage-subsidy scheme that worsened the problem that it was designed to solve. Theresa May labelled the housing-affordability problem a “burning injustice” but lacked the political will or capital to do anything about it. With his new political mandate, Johnson has no excuse not to act decisively. Loosening the U.K.’s housing rules would also encourage pro-market Conservatives, who have expressed concern about Johnson’s brand of One Nation Conservatism.

Much has been made of the Conservatives’ new voting coalition. The election results confirmed how the party has pivoted away from the prosperous southeast and toward parts of England that struggle, as London and its environs prosper. Today’s Conservatives answer to a more economically left-wing set of voters than at any point in living memory.

This blue-collar conservatism could take different forms. The worry is that an admirable desire to rebalance the British economy will deteriorate into big-government, market-stifling policies. More concerning still is that some on the right even appear to relish this possibility. Will Tanner, director of Onward—a think tank closely aligned with Theresa May—wants Johnson to consolidate his support in parts of the country by “break[ing] free of the traditional conservative playbook of trickle-down growth.” He believes that “more people should be encouraged to live and work near to where they grow up, rather than moving away to the city to make their way.”

Another version of blue-collar conservatism contains the possibility of radical reform, including in a pro-market direction. Freed from their electoral dependence on the wealthy shires, Conservatives can challenge those who gained the most from the recent housing boom. In recent years, free marketeers on both sides of the Atlantic have compellingly argued that, in housing and across the economy generally, insiders have used government regulation to protect their privileged positions. Tackling this behavior will arguably be easier now than it was before last month’s election. The Tories are less the party of economic winners than they once were; and they will not be as preoccupied by Brexit as they have been over the last three years. Conservatives shouldn’t underestimate the opportunity that the new climate offers for real change.

Photo by Lindsey Parnaby - WPA Pool/Getty Images

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