Monday, November 29, 2010

House prices slump for the fifth month running

Today Hometrack reported that house prices slumped for the fifth month running, and the BoE reported that mortgage approvals fell for the sixth month in a row. Why is this important? Because house prices impinge directly on middle Britain.

I've written before that I believe that slumping house prices were responsible for the thumping defeat that the Tories got in 1997. Though the economy was growing in the run up to the '97 election, house prices remained below their 1989 levels, and middle Britain was thoroughly fed-up as a result.

Labour was very conscious of why they were elected, which was why the first action of the Labour government was to make the BoE independent, at a stroke restoring confidence to the housing market.

When the credit crunch happened in 2008, Labour did everything they could to prevent forced selling - you got help with your mortgage after 13 weeks unemployment instead of 39 weeks previously, schemes were put in place to help people who were struggling, the government made it clear they would do everything and anything to keep the economy going.

And it worked. In May 2009, house prices began rising gently again - not much, but they weren't falling. A flat market meant no-one lost money. Once house prices had been rising for about six months, Labour began to rise again in the polls - indeed they rose enough to deny the Conservatives a majority at the general election.

However, all our good work has been undone by the Tories. They have been frightening the voters on a weekly basis since the end of June. They not only don't appear to realise that confidence is vital to the economy, but George Osborne couldn't resist gloating about all the jobs he was going to axe. I guess having power over so many people went to his head and he couldn't resist savouring it in public.

People who are frightened about their job prospects don't buy houses. They don't budge and the housing activity shrivels, leaving the few forced sellers to set the price - downwards.

There are 14.5 million home owners just in England. This is a massive interest group. It dwarfs public sector workers (8 million) or the 3 million people on disability benefit.

The disabled tend not to vote (from my contact with them, they struggle so much with pain and distress, they don't pay attention to anything outside their personal lives). A lot of public sector people voted LibDem in the 2010 election (they didn't want to vote Labour because Labour were the boss). They may switch to Labour in the next election.

The key to Labour winning the next election is to get the home owners back. According to this BBC graphic Labour won 41% of homeowners with mortgages in 1997, and 39% of home owners with mortgages in 2005. In 2010 we got 29% of home owners with mortgages. That was where we lost it - those home owners took for granted that the house price recovery and economic recovery were set in stone (confidence about the economy was high in May 2010), and felt they could switch without hurting themselves.

It will start dawning on them that a Tory government means a prolonged house price slump - again. At that point I expect we shall see people switching from Tory to Labour (up until now the rise in polls for Labour has been down only to LibDems switching to Labour).