In the Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You, the lone Republican son in a Manhattan household becomes a Democrat, but only after an arterial blockage is surgically removed, allowing more oxygen to reach his brain. In real life, changing one’s political opinions rarely requires such severe measures. Instead, among British voters in the 1980s, it was buying a home that made all the difference.
In the United Kingdom in the 1980s, government interventions in housing helped persuade a majority of voters to back the Conservatives. A liberalization of mortgage lending and the creation of the Right to Buy policy—which permitted and indeed subsidized renters in social housing to purchase their own units—led homeownership rates to rise ten percentage points between 1981 and 1990. Three million more households became owner-occupiers, including over a million of the skilled working class—the famed “C2s” in the National Readership Survey social grade system commonly used by British pollsters. In every British election since at least 1979, those who owned their homes outright voted for the Conservatives. A similar pattern is visible in the United States. Given this trend, it is worth examining how exactly the Conservative Party in the 1980s won over homeowners and what today’s Conservatives can learn from it.
WEALTH AND WELL-BEING
There are several potential explanations for why homeowners in the 1980s favored the center-right. One is that homeownership gives people a stake in continuity over change, implying more voter support for the Conservatives, traditionally the party of the status quo. But Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s years in power were clearly ones of great change, and in more recent times, owner-occupiers who owned their homes outright voted for the uncertainty of Brexit 55-45 percent. It is just as plausible that homeownership disposes owners to more risk and change rather than less. In 1979, after all, Labour was still the party of the status quo.
A better view is that a home is typically the largest single asset
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