Worst-off people and places cannot now be ignored

The result of the EU referendum has put the spotlight on the UK’s worst-off places. This is an opportunity to reinvigorate their prospects, says Claire Ainsley.

There have been more pictures of the UK’s most deprived places in the news over the last few days than at any time I can recall. The fractures in UK society, of which places and poverty are just two factors, have exploded into national debate as a result of the vote to leave the EU. Why does it take a catalyst like deprived areas voting to leave the EU – or the riots in the summer of 2011 – for places like Hartlepool to make national political news?

The vote for Brexit is in the early stages of dissection and analysis, and knee-jerk explanations or generalisations need to be avoided if the country’s divisions are to be understood and ultimately healed. Patterns of voting have been mapped onto differences in age, region, level of education, and place of birth. The deep geographical split in stark maps of a familiar UK, with unfamiliar colours marking the Remain or Leave vote, were last Friday morning’s enduring image.

It is important not to fall into an easy analysis that will only entrench further division between generations, class, race, nation and region. Look closely and the differences become clearer in relatively small spatial areas such as the suburban compared to the more densely populated cities.

Yet one truth is evident: the views and prospects of people on low incomes can no longer be overlooked in our economy and society. It is not just morally wrong, but is harming the strength and legitimacy of our democracy.

JRF has been deeply concerned about the economic and social dislocation, particularly in parts of the North of England where we are based, for communities that have struggled to recover from de-industrialisation and recession. Our practical response has been to work in partnership with northern cities like Leeds on a long-term programme to promote economic growth that includes people on the lowest incomes, so that towns and cities achieve a sustainable prosperity with permanently lower levels of dependency. Just last week, we supported the set-up of Hartlepool Action Lab with people in the town to make positive change happen.

Democracy and platforms for people on the lowest incomes matter too. JRF has supported the development of the Poverty Truth Commissions across the UK, to bring people with experience of poverty together with those who have more power to achieve change. Later this year JRF will be publishing with NatCen the first opinion poll of the social and political attitudes of people on low incomes, borne out of a desire to see the views of people who are amongst the most under-represented achieve a higher profile.

Politicians of all parties need to take a long, hard look at how modern politics has operated. For too long, the concerns of many have been overlooked unless being fought over in a marginal seat. Yet the question of how governments can support people in a more open economy with all its volatility is now central and pressing. As Julia Unwin said last Friday, there can be no going back to business as usual.

The daily concerns of people who feel left behind need to be addressed. This includes immigration. It also includes the pressures many of those places feel, about struggling to make ends meet, rising costs, falling living standards and lack of opportunity.

In September, JRF will be publishing the results of a four-year endeavour to find out what it would take to solve poverty in the UK. Tackling poverty could be seen as too difficult in this febrile atmosphere, where social reform looks likely to drop off the political agenda as negotiations dominate and parties battle it out. But the question of poverty in the UK has seldom been more relevant. Last Thursday’s vote shows the concerns of the worst-off people and places must be listened to, understood and acted upon.

One final thought. If UK citizens had voted to remain in the EU, would there be such media attention on Hartlepool or Dudley? Probably not. Let the opportunity to reinvigorate the voice and prospects of all of the parts of the United Kingdom not be squandered.