Does owning a home make you more conservative?

Date
February 22, 2022
Issues

Sinisa Hadziabdic, Sebastian Kohl

The traditional view is that people who own property are more likely to vote for parties on the right of politics, but new research suggests otherwise

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Political partisanship has been changing across Europe in recent decades. We’ve seen the appearance of a new, more economically liberal Left (such as New Labour in the UK) – as well as the emergence of both right-wing and left-wing populism (UKIP, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, for example).

These trends are often explained as changes in cultural attitudes – with right-wing populism often said to be linked to issues such as immigration – but where do these changes come from? It’s long been assumed that homeownership – and having a mortgage in particular – makes people

  • more politically active
  • more likely to vote for conservative (and incumbent) parties
  • hold anti-welfare views because they’re now financially independent
  • vote populist when house prices are depressed.

The 1980s policy of giving council house tenants the right to buy their property, for example, transferred a massive amount of housing from public to private hands – and research has shown that those who bought in this way were more likely to be conservative than non-buyers. People who can’t buy a house, by contrast, are apparently likely to turn to populist protest parties.

These findings, though, tend to be based on cross-sectional studies. We used data from Understanding Society and the British Household Panel Survey to look at the question with longitudinal data – and used the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and the Swiss Household Panel (SHP), too, in order to compare three European countries.

Using the data

Our main independent variable – whether someone is a homeowner or nonhomeowner – is available in all waves of each of these studies. We considered a number of dependent variables, including:

  • level of interest in politics
  • whether a respondent feels an attachment for any party (Germany and the UK) or the extent to which they participate in federal polls (Switzerland)
  • whether a respondent feels an attachment to the main left-wing or conservative parties in the three countries
  • whether they lean towards to the main right-wing populist parties in Germany and the UK (in Switzerland, the main conservative party is also the main populist party).

The main innovation of our analysis was that we did not look at homeownership as a binary variable, comparing homeowners to nonhomeowners as in existing cross-sectional research. This would entail that the implications of homeownership can be fully captured by the moment in which an individual switches from not owning property to owning it. A longitudinal perspective allows us to track changes in attitude throughout the homeownership trajectory, looking at how political convictions gradually change in the years before buying a home and in the years after. This is possible only by working with the individual panel data offered by Understanding Society, SOEP, and SHP, and allows us to re-explore existing research in a new light. It also allows us to examine homeownership not as an isolated event, but as part of a number of connected events in people’s lives, such as finding a partner and starting a family.

We estimate our models through fixed effects by including a standard set of socio-demographic controls, along with time dummies. We plot the estimates by representing on the x-axis pairs of years in the membership trajectory, while the y-axis gives the attitudinal difference between the reference year (indicated on the label of the y-axis) and each one of these pairs of years.

What we found

In Germany, there is a continuous increase in the likelihood of having a partisan preference, starting well before homeownership and continuing after having become a homeowner. Homeowners also tend to become more interested in politics well before buying a home and continue on the same path afterwards. The propensity to favour the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also increases continuously, while the preference for the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) remains unaffected. The vote for right-wing populist parties shows a consistent increasing trend, while no impact is visible when it comes to the support for the left-wing populist party Die Linke.

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In Switzerland, too, there is an increase in the propensity to vote in federal polls, which peaks some years after having become a homeowner, and an increasing interest in politics. Looking at partisan preferences, there is a continuous increase in the likelihood of voting for the SP (the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland) and a negative trend in support for SVP (the conservative Swiss People’s Party).

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There is a similar pattern in the UK, with interest in politics increasing especially in the period leading up to homeownership. There is also a general trend towards supporting the Labour Party, particularly around the time of buying a house – and we can see a continuous disaffection with the Conservative Party. As in Germany, the right-wing populist party (in this case, UKIP) gains a continuous share of voters among homeowners.

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House prices and political views

In the UK, we also looked at how reported changes in the value of their house might affect people’s views. We divided the level of house price rise into three groups. In the first, with the lowest level of growth in property value, there is no obvious trend in their interest in politics. They tend however to become less likely to feel close both to Labour and to the Conservative Party, while they increase their propensity to support UKIP. In the second third (a medium level of growth in house price), people become slightly more likely to support the Labour Party and strongly less likely to feel close to the Conservative Party. In the third with the highest level of house price growth, there is a decreasing tendency to support the Conservative Party, and they become more attracted by UKIP.

What our findings mean

Our longitudinal research has shown that there is, indeed, an effect of housing on politics – but it isn’t a sudden change. It’s an important ingredient in a long-term shift in people’s political views. Also, the longitudinal view didn’t confirm the traditional view that homeownership makes people more conservative. In fact, it brings them closer to (New) Labour.

We think this is a symptom of the way support for left of centre parties has persistently changed from low-income, low-education working class to high-income and high-education groups. It could be seen as a way for homeowners – who are wealthier than the average citizen – to solve the contradictions arising from their left-wing ideals and the fact that the more liberal economic policies of new-Labour-style parties are in their economic interests.

The conservatizing effect of homeownership only works for extreme right-wing parties, where owning property is perhaps less a bulwark against an invasive welfare state than against the perceived dangers of economic globalisation or migration. But we do not find evidence for this being related to housing values or the amount of mortgage debt, as suggested in existing research.

Where we did agree with cross-sectional research was finding that homeownership is associated with more political involvement: people are more likely to be interested in politics and to have a partisan preference if they own property.

Overall, in the long-term, homeownership consolidates long-held views, but its influence can’t be pinned down to one particular moment – and can’t be disentangled from other trends in life, such as building a family and career.

Authors

11 Feb 2022 31 Jan 2022 17 Jan 2022