Why politicians must listen to people on low incomes

One reason UK poverty persists is that people on low incomes are often marginalised. They must have a stronger voice in democracy, says Claire Ainsley.

Today new research from NatCen for JRF reveals a deep insight into the social and political attitudes of people on low incomes. This is motivated by a desire to see greater understanding of – and attention to – the views and opinions of people on low incomes in public debate.

At a time when politicians ought to be interested in what people on low incomes think – analysis for JRF by Matthew Goodwin revealed the poorest households were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest – this research aims to shed light on the attitudes of those sometimes overlooked in political representation.

The research reveals that:

  • people on lower incomes were significantly more likely to believe that Britain should leave the EU, and less likely to believe that Britain should remain in the EU but reduce its power
  • 61% of people on low incomes don’t trust politicians to tell the truth compared to 50% of people on higher incomes. People on low incomes are significantly less likely to describe themselves as interested in politics, although the proportion is rising (from 20% in 2000 to 25% in 2015).
  • health and disability topped the list of priorities amongst low- and high-income groups, followed by personal finances, crime, immigration, and housing
  • 76% of those on low incomes felt they could make no difference to immigration. In contrast only 19% said they could make no difference to their personal finances, 36% housing and 16% education
  • people on lower incomes are more likely to feel they have no control over their housing situation (36%) than people not on low incomes (15%).

People in poverty are not a distinct, separate group. Many of the findings show that the attitudes of people on low incomes are broadly similar to their higher-income peers and they prioritise the same issues. People from all income levels tend to share the same concerns about their families, health and finances. But people in poverty feel relatively less able to do something about some of them.

Poverty persists in the UK today

JRF is committed to searching out the underlying causes of poverty. One of the reasons UK poverty persists, despite great advances over the last century, is that people on the lowest incomes are often marginalised and less well represented in public life. Trade unions and faith and community organisations continue to play a vital role but they are not a substitute for democratic representation.

Positive and lasting social change will depend on opening the door to greater participation and direct representation from people who have low incomes themselves. JRF is funding and supporting Poverty Truth Commissions in cities across the UK to support people to build local relationships for change, and we integrate the role of people with direct experience of poverty into many of our programmes.

Listening to the views and opinions of people from every walk of life should be an integral part of UK democracy. With the support of the House of Commons Library and the Political Studies Association, JRF and NatCen will be presenting this insight in parliament so that organisations independent of any political party can come together to further the understanding of the attitudes of those on low incomes. JRF is working with NatCen to make this an annual opinion poll of the social and political attitudes of people on low incomes.

2016 has been an extraordinary year. Very few people predicted the political events that have taken place. The shock ought to provoke politicians of all parties, across the UK nationally and locally, to listen more closely to the people they represent. This has to mean a stronger voice for the many and diverse constituencies that make up the UK at this critical time in the UK’s future.