May 17, 2023 - 4:00pm

Sir Keir Starmer has shaken off his famed risk-aversion and started punching at the biggest, bluest, rawest Tory bruise of them all. “We want to make sure that many more houses are built and that the price comes down,” he told the Times today. The tectonic plates of housing politics seem to be shifting at a speed not seen since Margaret Thatcher announced her Right To Buy policy, over forty years ago. 

Claiming to be on the side of the “builders, not blockers”, Starmer said that the Tories had killed “the aspiration of homeowning for a whole generation”. He’s not wrong. Thirteen years of broken Conservative promises on building more housing have sent prices and rents to postwar highs, leaving an entire resentful generation of aspirant homeowners hung out to dry. The promise of having something to show for working hard and doing the right things in life has been broken — and the voices of the young have been ignored.

“Of course we need to build houses,” Janus-faced Tory MPs tell radio presenters, television audiences and young voters, all while doing everything in their substantial power to block housing — to keep their elderly homeowning voters happy. Michael Gove is said to privately understand that this is a trap of existential proportions the Conservative Party has walked straight into — killing off its own future voting base, and the country’s standard of living and tax base too, as growth, productivity and wages stagnate in lockstep.

But that didn’t stop the housing minister responding in the Sun to Starmer’s interview with platitudes devoid of credibility in exactly the pattern described above. “I will never screw you over to appease NIMBY MPs,” Gove said, while in the same interview defending his NIMBY-in-chief colleague Theresa Villiers. This, mere months after he sold out young people by scrapping housing targets — one of the few mechanisms to force housing through our restrictive, vetocratic planning system.

“Sir Keir’s interest in housing is as cosmetic as Holly and Phil’s on-air relationship. [He] doesn’t understand the housing crisis, his experience has been silence, opportunism and superficiality,” he said.

Mr Gove, have you seen your own party’s housing record? Some of us are living it. Each day, the conflict between a dwindling number of young members forced into renting and the remaining gerontocratic base is becoming clearer and clearer.

Many young Conservatives have heard these unfulfilled promises a thousand times. They’re even distrustful of Starmer’s olive branch, not least because it arrived several years into his leadership. We’ve also been down the “smash the NIMBYs” route before, under housing secretary Robert Jenrick — and you can guess how that turned out, as good as his intentions were. Even if Starmer is genuine, will this move work? He at least seems to understand the economic and productivity implications of starving productive areas of Britain of sufficient housing, stating that housebuilding is key to unlocking “the sort of growth we need in this country.” 

Starmer’s biggest risk is that he alienates not the young — who are already largely on his side — but the kind of middle-to-late aged voters that Labour has lost so comprehensively to the Tory Party in recent decades, and who it needs to tempt back in order to win the next election. Particularly as he is choosing to touch the third rail of British politics — proposing building on greenbelt land. 

Policy experts may know that the greenbelt isn’t all green and pleasant land, and includes urban scrubland, old petrol stations and decrepit car wash venues. But will Tory leaflets say that? Let’s hope this boldness actually materialises. If it does, the next election could finally become the debate about housing delivery and living standards that Britain desperately needs.

James Sean Dickson is an analyst and journalist who Substacks at Himbonomics.