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Feature: Which way will architects be voting at the ballot box?

Election 2017 graphics 3

An AJ poll reveals that architects remain loyal to Labour, but a surge for the Liberal Democrats indicates that Brexit is a key election issue, finds Richard Waite

The architectural profession’s support for the Labour Party remains unwavering, according to an online survey of AJ readers.

The poll of 599 architects, students and architectural technologists, launched last week after prime minister Theresa May called a snap general election, revealed that nearly 35 per cent intended to vote for Labour on 8 June, compared with just 22 per cent for the Conservatives.

General Election Overall2

General Election Overall2

The results echo the findings of a similar AJ survey carried out before the 2015 election, which showed Labour at 35 per cent and the Conservatives at 18 per cent, although support for the Tories has edged up since their victory two years ago.

If the political pollsters are to be believed – and remember many failed to predict either the outcome of the 2015 election or last year’s EU referendum – the profession’s voting preferences are out of kilter with the rest of the nation.

According to a recent YouGov poll, the Conservatives are set to win 42 per cent of votes – a landslide victory that would increase May’s majority from a slender 17 seats to triple figures.

Despite widespread criticism of Labour and, in particular its leader Jeremy Corbyn, the profession’s unrelenting support for the party is not entirely unexpected.

General Election Policies

General Election Policies

Since 2001, the profession has only once chosen the Tories ahead of Labour in polls – in 2010 when a survey by the Fees Bureau revealed that almost a third of architects planned to vote Conservative.

And in September 2015, when the Labour Party was electing a new leader, AJ research showed widespread backing for Corbyn, with 74 per cent of respondents surveyed saying he was their first choice.  

As David Green, a director of Belsize Architects and former head of the European division of the Bank of England, says: ‘This survey of voting intentions and electoral concerns shows, unsurprisingly, [that architects] remain out of line with the population as a whole.

‘They care more than others about policies on the built environment, both for the sake of their own employment and, very likely, their concern about availability of housing for those they feel need it. So continued strong support for Labour is natural.’ 

Patrick Michell at Platform 5 Architects adds: I am not a fan of the leadership of any of the political parties at the moment but for me this election is about trying to curb the Conservatives’ push for a politically driven hard Brexit and cuts to public services.

I will vote Labour in the hope that in the near future they will develop a new, strong leadership

‘On this occasion I will be voting Labour in the hope that in the near future they will develop a new, strong leadership and form an effective opposition. For this election I fear it is already too late.’

The biggest shift revealed by the AJ’s poll is a resurgence of support for the Liberal Democrats – 28 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the party, almost trebling its support from readers in 2015. Remarkably, for readers working in small practices, the Lib Dems are now the most popular party, slightly ahead of Labour. 

The party’s anti-Brexit stance and promise of a second referendum on the final Brexit deal has manifested itself in a huge upward swing (mainly it seems away from the Greens who dropped to just 7 per cent from 18 per cent two years ago). 

Indeed scores of those polled wanted an immediate rethink of the government’s EU exit strategy – or for Brexit to be abandoned altogether.

General Election Brexit

General Election Brexit

Chris Mackenzie at Designscape Architects says: ‘I’m voting Lib Dem, because I voted to remain in the EU and I do not want to reward the self-serving right wing of the Tory party for deceiving the nation into such an act of folly.

‘Call me a middle-class neoliberal if you like, but I don’t want to retreat back into nationalism and fear of foreigners – we all know where that can end.’

Among the many survey respondents who voiced their concerns, one said: ‘The government should reverse Brexit, or give the final deal on Brexit to the people as a second referendum with revoking Article 50 as an option.’  

Another reader said: ‘Any new government must handle Brexit negotiations without burning the country down’, while a third described Brexit as a ‘disaster built on lies’ and an ‘omnishambles’.

Asked to name their highest priority when deciding who to vote for, more than half (51 per cent) said Brexit – and a far larger than average proportion of these respondents said they planned to vote Lib Dem (44 per cent).

The NHS (11 per cent) and housing (10.5 per cent) were ranked second and third in readers’ priorities.

General Election Priorities

General Election Priorities

Peter Horrocks of Liverpool-based K2 Architects thinks the Lib Dems will continue to focus on targeting the 48 per cent of Remain voters. 

‘I’d like to think that any election would reconsider our position on Europe,’ he says. ‘I was a remain voter and probably would be again should there be a second referendum.’

This, however, is clearly not on May’s agenda. One of the main reasons for calling the election was to allow the government’s Brexit negotiations to progress quickly with a bigger majority and fewer parliamentary challenges.

Architect Warren Whyte, who is also a Conservative county councillor says: ‘This election should be about delivering a successful Brexit and not to become embroiled in further procedural delaying tactics. The new government can then crack on and grasp the challenges of housing delivery, one of the key topics actually being discussed with me on the doorstep. 

‘The country will soon be able to redeploy EU infrastructure funding to where we think it is best suited, and allow local government with their Local Enterprise Partnerships to put forward robust and convincing cases for local and strategic infrastructure investment that will unlock housing and economic development, much as we are doing here in Buckinghamshire.’

General Election Architecture

General Election Architecture

But, while the prime minister hopes an early election will also help create lasting ‘stability and certainty’, the prospect of a fourth general election or referendum in three years has already further weakened short-term confidence.

Decisions over major schemes, not least the £4 billion revamp of Parliament, which Foster + Partners and BDP among others are waiting to hear on, are likely to be postponed until the next government is decided.

Napier Clarke Architects director Steven Clarke says: ‘The immediate affect will be a further slowdown, with clients holding off on decision-making until after the election.’

However he adds: ‘The long-term affect could be positive depending upon who wins; but assuming the Conservatives do, then maybe confidence and decision-making will improve.’

Former RIBA president Jack Pringle of AJ100 practice Perkins + Will is not so sure. 

‘The purpose of the election is to give Theresa May a bigger majority and therefore more wriggle room in her Brexit negotiations,’ he says. ‘If she achieves her goal, signing off a Brexit deal with the EU is more certain – but what that deal is, is still anyone’s guess. 

A little more certainty is a little better for the construction industry

‘A little more certainty is a little better for the construction industry. But once we are through this economic Indian Summer – still in the EU and with a low pound – and the realities of Brexit strike, the economy and our industry will be badly affected for years, until we rebuild our trade agreements.’   

General Election Practice Size

General Election Practice Size

It is those working for the bigger practices who are most likely to vote Conservative, with a quarter of respondents from companies employing more than 50 opting for the Tories compared with 20 per cent in firms of fewer than five staff.

And comparing the AJ’s architectural readership with the early results of a survey by sister title Construction News is also telling. More than half (54 per cent) are intending to back the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems second and Labour third.

Perhaps neither poll will be truly reflective of the nation’s voting pattern in early June. But both suggest big movements towards the Lib Dems, with the chance of a second Brexit vote a temptation for some.

General Election London vs UK

General Election London vs UK

Sample responses

What one thing would you want the new government to do for the country?

  • ‘Create a local resident house-buying clause, especially in cities, to ensure new housing developments do not become physical savings accounts for foreign investors.’
  • ‘Address inequality by reversing the unhealthy attitude we have towards housing’
  • ‘Prepare a housebuilding manifesto with an emphasis away from the volume-housebuilders’ interests’
  • ‘Get a positive result from Brexit and face the future with optimism as an independent country’
  • ‘Reinstate environmental policies lost by this government’
  • ‘Roll back higher education fees’
  • ‘After the last referendum, the election of Donald Trump and the French presidential results can anybody really say they don’t have a chance?’

What one thing would you want the new government to do for the profession?

  • ‘Require all planning applications be submitted by a qualified architect, with small exceptions, and that the architect must remain throughout to the end of the build to ensure genuine design continuity.’
  • ‘Abandon Design and Build on government projects.’ 
  • ‘Put together a sensible plan to build “social housing” not non-affordable “affordable” housing. The government must ensure local authorities can borrow the money they need for capital programmes.’
  • ‘It should merge the RIBA and ARB and reinstate a fee scale.’
  • ‘Engage more actively with the RIBA and ensure Brexit doesn’t isolate British architects.’

Aj brexilection 32crop


Richard Murphy, founder of Richard Murphy Architects

I am voting Lib Dem. My mind is made up. Why? Of course, they didn’t completely cover themselves with glory in the coalition, but: I believe in the UK staying together as a country; the Lib Dems is the only party that still believes in the UK in Europe; it is also the only party promising the people of Britain a vote on the final Brexit deal in 18 months’ time (when, unlike last time, we should know what the two options actually are); and finally, in this increasingly authoritarian, nationalist and intolerant world, I want to state my liberal, tolerant, open and internationalist values.

Paul Chappell of 9BCareers

From the numerous conversations I’ve had with architects over the last year, the majority would have preferred to stay in Europe. That said, following the result, the jobs market has been far more positive than most predicted and workloads have generally remained strong. Although there have been a few firms making redundancies, this has been offset by the number of our clients rapidly expanding, especially those focused on large-scale residential markets.

The one thing that tends to have the greatest impact is uncertainty and at least with a snap general election, there won’t be months of campaigning. The result will be known shortly. Whoever wins, it is at this point the architecture profession needs a strong voice from the RIBA to support their views on the many challenging issues ahead.

Maggie Mullan of Maggie Mullan Architects

Like the respondents to the survey my leanings are to Labour – out of principle. But I’ve very little confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to deliver the stabilising and unifying force necessary to take us through Brexit and to stand our ground against Trump.

Personality-wise I am warming to Theresa May but would never vote Conservative as I would feel it a betrayal of my working class roots. She is, however, an impressive leader and the snap general election can only strengthen her position and mandate (and I have to say rightly so) against a weak and inward looking opposition.

Brexit is here and we need to be governed and led by a party that can chart its way through upheaval to the west and east. The polarisation of votes in the current French election is evidence that most of the rest of Europe is unhappy with ‘institutional politics’. I fear that most mainstream European countries will have their hands full dealing with shifts within their own borders to worry too much about Britain exiting.

Domestic political change is more of a concern to my clients, with the prospect of stealth taxing (through extending the scope of VAT), increasing the rate of VAT and, more worryingly, abolishing gift aid impacting upon confidence.

Tom Gresford of Gresford Architects

I will be voting for the Lib Dems. The Conservatives are leading us towards a disastrous Hard Brexit and votes for the Tories and Lib Dems are always close where I live, in Oxford West & Abingdon.

On other issues I am deeply concerned about privatisation of the NHS and schools, and the Tories have an appalling record on environment - scrapping code without replacing it - and strong leadership on environmental issues is something we are more likely to get from the Lib Dems.

This news feature was published in the Buildings that care issue – click here to buy a copy 


Readers' comments (3)

  • Whilst I understand the conservatives tactics in promoting the theme "strong and stable government" as the counterpoint to Labour's seeming inability to string a series of policies together under a weak and single minded leader, I would far rather see more emphasis on being open and progressive. Immigration can be controlled without closing our borders to trade and the hugely talented mobile workforce from Europe and beyond - so essential in most of our main industries and public services. Businesses greatest fear in our industry at least, is the loss of access to this labour pool. I remain undecided at present, like others, I'm struggle with all of the present party leaders so their policies must be our focus in deciding where to vote as always. My head says conservative but my heart is more liberal (with a small 'l'!). I will watch and read all that is said and written down and decide once I have formed a view on who is best placed to take us through what is going to be a turbulent few years.

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  • Those who voted labour in 2010 must presumably, have been voting for BRITISH JOBS FOR BRITISH WORKERS ?

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    In your first graph the total percentage for the 2015 survey is 106% ... the total percentage for the 2017 survey is 97%

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