Wooing the property virgins
Can New Labour connect with the thirtysomething voter through feeling the pain of the first-time buyer?
‘Lowest mortgage rates for 40 years’, clamours one of New Labour’s 2005 advertising posters, in swirly psychedelic hippie lettering. Underneath, in more modest type, it warns: ‘Don’t let the Tories take us back to 15 percent interest rates.’ (1)
Another of the four posters sports a black-and-white image of a drum kit bearing the legend ‘Lowest inflation since the 60s’ and the warning ‘Don’t let the Tories take us back to almost 10 percent inflation’. Change the record, already! If ever we had any doubts about New Labour’s preferred constituency, we now have it spelt out: university-going buddies from more radical times, who have grown more boringly possessive of their property since then; the people who were into New Labour before it even existed and can remember the dark days of the 1980s property crash. They’d never vote Tory, especially not now – although maybe they need a reminder about why they should get off their comfortably-clad backsides and vote at all.
But what about their kids? New Labour’s ad-people don’t yet seem to have designed something aimed specially at middle-class middle-youthers, and for very good reason. How can it hope to connect with that dissolute pool of self-esteeming cynics, Generation X and its younger siblings, for whom the 1980s means nothing more disturbing than Agadoo and Orville, and anything related to mortgage rates remains a distant fantasy? Political historians are fond of telling us that youth apathy is nothing new, as people settle down into responsible voting behaviour by their thirties – but when thirtysomethings don’t have kids, houses or any fear of unemployment, today’s politicians struggle to find something to talk to them about.
Which might be why New Labour has sent in the cavalry, in the portly form of deputy prime minister John Prescott, to set about wooing ‘first-time buyers’ (2).
Of course, Prescott’s new five-year plan will have no practical impact upon the feted first-time buyer of relentless news feature: the urban professional pining for a nicely-postcoded one-bedroom flat of his/her own. Indeed, it is hard to see who exactly will really benefit from the mishmash of initiatives, which seem to involve a watered-down ‘right to buy’ for council and housing association tenants, the donation of government-owned land to build nasty starter homes, and a kind of architects’ competition to see who can design the greenest cheapo houses, which will presumably have to stay up for just as long as New Labour is in power.
This is certainly not a grandiose scheme designed to provide much-needed land for decent property in sought-after regions, thereby addressing the cause of the so-called housing price crisis (too many people wanting too few houses). The harping on about low-income families confuses the assumption that all anybody really wants is a mortgage with the fact that many people really need a decent place to live (which will not necessarily be on offer in the cardboard two-bed starter home where the doctor’s surgery used to be).
If anything, this looks more like a penny-pinching stunt, designed to show that the government feels the pain of the wannabe homeowner without wanting to provide anything too drastic and long-term by way of solution. However, it may work on one level – because, if you believe what you read in the papers, there’s nothing first-time buyers seem to like more than having their pain felt.
As I have argued before on spiked, there is something slightly off about today’s cultural obsession with the first-time buyer (see Safe as houses). As we remember from the Thatcher years, as social aspiration goes, the focus on home ownership was always a pretty limited one. But even then, this aspiration was tied up with a sense of personal progression, adulthood and responsibility. Being a homeowner meant being settled and stable, a secure foundation upon which to raise your family and live your daily life. This was also, of course, why the 1980s property crash had such a devastating effect, stripping people of everything they had worked for and all the security they thought they had.
The cultural and political interest in home ownership today is just as limited and conservative as the Thatcherite dream, yet it speaks to shallower aspirations. The ‘first-time buyer’ of the media pages is somebody who will cite a plethora of reasons why they think they ought to be able to buy a flat – an investment, a pension, having somewhere nice to live without the irritations of flatmates or partners – but the key thing is that they want a place to themselves. Having eschewed the ties and responsibilities of everything else about adult life, they crave the illusion of security that bricks and mortar can bring, a well-appointed fortress from which to watch the world go by.
If urban professional singletons want to buy themselves a little home, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that this kind of ‘first-time buying’ is just about the only level upon which the government can hope to connect with youngish professionals, that being an adult citizen today means little more than the aspiration for a largeish mortgage, is pretty sad. Talk about house prices and the plight of the single-earner has already taken over the London dinner party circuit. Does it have to become the bread-and-butter of political life too?
(1) See Delivering a strong economy, on the Labour Party website
(2) Help offer for first-time buyers, BBC News, 24 January 2005
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