How to unlock the potential of low-income voters in left-behind places

Mike Hawking gives three steps politicians can take to start solving the long-standing problems holding low-income voters back, and preventing them building a better life.     

Low-income voters living in towns and cities across the UK feel they’re being locked out of opportunities more prosperous parts of the country are benefiting from. That was one of the key findings of a new report from JRF and UK in a Changing Europe, which asked low-income voters what their hopes were for their local area after Brexit.  

We heard of a nation divided, between Leave and Remain voters, between London and the rest of the country, but also between big cities and overlooked towns. People from Glasgow to Southampton, Newport to Hastings felt that their areas just weren’t getting a fair share of investment from business or Government. 

So I think what we would call traditional working class areas, they’re … declined to the benefit of richer areas where people want to invest money rather than actually investing it in areas where it would make a difference to local life.
Female, Bolton

Despite these issues, when we asked people what could be done to improve the wealth of their local area, a consensus grew. People wanted to see jobs with better pay and more secure terms, more vibrant local economies with investment in high streets and local businesses, more accessible apprenticeships for young people and opportunities for adults to retrain.  

It's all low-paid jobs, so to be able to bring up the area in general, we need people with higher-paid jobs. So they need more companies to be brought in that aren't just distribution centres so we need incentives, like I talked about an engineering plant, to bring big businesses in that are willing to have their headquarters here, for example.
Female, Worksop

But what does this mean? We think that politicians need to hear people’s repeated calls to focus on long-standing domestic problems that are holding people back and constraining them from building a better life. It’s welcome that the Prime Minister made commitments about forgotten towns, buses and rail investment in his first speech outside of London, but many of these are reheated plans from the previous administration. The people we heard from were weary of politicians who make promises about their communities but fail to deliver.  

We haven’t got the attention before Brexit; I don’t know if we’ll get it after.
Female, Middlesbrough

A far more ambitious response is needed to attract and grow businesses, improve transport connections and invest in skills in places where people have been locked out of opportunity. We think that, as a starting point, this should include: 

  • Delivering on the £2.4 billion a year Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for EU regional funding, and committing to further investment to rebalance the UK’s economy.  
  • Investment in basic skills training to ensure that everyone has the basic numeracy, literacy and digital skills needed to prosper in the modern economy.  
  • Adopting the recommendations of the Augar Commission on post-18 education to provide more funding, simpler access, and more financial support for those on low incomes in the further education system.  

Further details about the work can be found in the briefing written by JRF and UK in a Changing Europe. A fuller report on the research has been written by ComRes, who conducted the workshops.