Since moving to London in 2009 I’ve lived in approximately eight houses, surfed on four sofas and lived for a very traumatic six months on a leaky old boat on the city’s canals.
I moved out of choice twice – trust me, I needed to get out of that tent-on-water for my own sanity – but mostly my itinerant lifestyle was born of necessity rather than choice. Landlords hiked up the rent on grotty houses hardly worth what I was paying for them in the first place; two of them kicked me out so that they were able to sell their properties; short-term sublets ran their course; and shared houses disbanded.
I lost a lot of things between houses: bedding, kitchenware, lamps, rugs... and then my vote.
There was a particularly challenging period, when I moved house four times in seven months. Returning to London after a short break, I lived on a friend’s sofa, then officially rented, before moving onto a boat and then onto another sublet before being booted out.
Moving around so much – literally, as I had to move the boat every fortnight – meant that most of the time I couldn’t recall my own postcode, never mind remembering to register my vote with my local council. This meant that when the London mayoral election came around, I’d left it too late to register my vote.
I wasn’t the only one though, not that it was much solace. According to the Electoral Commission, renters are the group who are least likely to be registered to vote, with most London renters changing address three or more times over a five-year period.
It’s not easy for councils to give renters a gentle nudge either. In 2014, the UK replaced the old “household registration” system with the “individual electoral registration”, whereby each individual is responsible for registering with their local electoral services. Practically, that means that 400 cash-strapped local councils have to contact 46 million voters instead of 20 million households, with no cross-borough communication.
The Conservative Government doesn’t make this situation any easier, ignoring appeals to remove hurdles facing those without a permanent home. Under current rules, anyone without a permanent address must print out a “local connection” form to return to their local council, rather than filling out an online form. During the time I was living between four addresses, I was hardly able to find somewhere to do my laundry, never mind somewhere to print out a form.
Meanwhile, the Government is changing the law to allow British expats to vote easily, regardless of how long they have lived outside the UK. Seemingly, the changes benefit the status quo with renters and sofa surfers likely to vote Labour, while overseas pensioners are inclined to vote Conservative.
Here’s the problem: until precarious renters and itinerant livers on sofas and canals have a voice, their issues will remain, and the reasons behind uncertain living conditions – in particular, low wages, paltry rights as renters and exorbitant housing prices – will remain unchanged. What will change, I can be certain, will be my address in the next 12 months.Reuse content