Monday November 27 2023.

3 minute read

Can you win an election as a YIMBY?

Speaking to the BBC after October’s three-day Labour party conference, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer surprised many when he identified openly as a ‘YIMBY’.

YIMBYs’, the opposite of ‘not in my backyard’ NIMBYs, are pro-housing advocates who actively support building projects starting near them. It’s a term rarely used, especially by politicians as high-profile as the leader of the opposition.

Starmer declaring himself a YIMBY followed a firm commitment at the party’s recent conference to housing targets, new towns, and controversially to giving developers increased powers to override local objections.

Importantly, this strong pro-development stance came a week ahead of two pivotal by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. Both were resounding successes for Labour in firmly Conservative safe seats.

Starmer’s commitment to development was arguably a gamble, but one that paid off. It asks whether a self-professed YIMBY could win a general election on that platform.

For Tamworth, this bet made sense. MRP polling conducted by Ben Ansell (Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at the University of Oxford) has estimated the mean level of constituency residents who ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ support building new houses in their local area. Based on two recent YouGov surveys conducted with a representative sample, it is arguably one of the most stringent recent indicators of housebuilding sentiment by constituency.

According to the poll, Tamworth is relatively supportive of housebuilding when compared with the national average. Around 35 per cent of respondents in Tamworth supported housebuilding compared to the national average of 36.8 per cent, making Tamworth a potential gain for YIMBYs.

The by-election was also a Labour-Conservative battle that saw national debates enter local politics, with general party policy likely influencing voting. In return, local debates about housebuilding may have been contextualised as part of a grander, more general discussion about how to develop as a nation.

Both Starmer and Sarah Edwards MP, the winner of the seat, claimed as much by suggesting the victory was an endorsement of Labour’s general ‘vision of progress’.

For the many in favour of housebuilding in Tamworth, Labour’s pro-development platform may have subliminally fed into this ‘vision of progress’. When coupled with key concerns around fixing the cost of living and policing, this likely helped produce the party’s second-largest by-election swing ever.

Mid-Bedfordshire’s by-election was different. Local housebuilding became a key issue in a seat that leans NIMBY. Labour’s housing policies were centre stage, rather than part of a broader party vision as it likely was in Tamworth.

Labour candidate Alistair Strathern proposed a supportive, yet arguably vague, platform that emphasised a need for infrastructure and services, as well as a preference for homes for first-time buyers. This could then have been linked to similar, but more concrete, national policies being announced at the party’s conference.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came out against big developments (and developers). The Conservatives also opposed greenbelt development in favour of building on brownfield sites which, in a rural constituency like Mid-Bedfordshire, amounts to relatively little. All rather anti-development platforms in a rather anti-development seat.

It is surprising, therefore, that Labour won. There are several possibilities. One could be that the ‘NIMBY vote’ was split, leaving Labour with an open window. Two, that despite the prominence of housebuilding as an issue, voters still framed these debates in national policy terms, as in Tamworth. Three, that Labour’s local platform was genuinely popular.

All three, though, suggest that YIMBYs can win elections. The big question remains – does this translate nationally?

Starmer’s YIMBYism arguably responds to the growing salience, and popularity, of housebuilding. His commitments to housing did not dent Labour’s 20+ per cent lead in the polls. If anything, it may have boosted support for the party in October. The pressure senior Tories are now putting on PM Rishi Sunak to ‘take on’, and out-build, Starmer is also telling.

Tamworth is likely to be a more accurate representation of how a general election plays out seat-by-seat, with a prolonged three-way – and highly localised – constituency election rarer to find. Yet Mid-Bedfordshire shows that even in supposedly ‘NIMBY’-leaning seats, YIMBYs have a fighting chance.

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