We live in unprecedented times. And while this phrase has become almost hackneyed in its overuse, it makes it no less true when it comes to the seismic shift that has taken place amongst the UK’s 8.8 million voters living in low-income households.
In a once almost unimaginable reversal of historical trends, the Conservative party is now more popular among those struggling to make ends meet than the Labour party.
A landmark report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) out this week reveals that whilst Labour enjoyed a lead among low-income voters as recently as 2017, this has now disappeared. Despite being in office for nearly a decade, in 2019 the Conservatives established a 15-point lead over Labour among people on low incomes – the first time in recorded history that the Conservatives have outpolled Labour with this group.
Key factors driving this inversion of traditional voting patterns included Brexit, negative perceptions of Labour’s leadership and economic plans and a Conservative advance among working class voters, pensioners and non-graduates.
But whilst retaining or regaining the support of this group prior to the Coronavirus outbreak posed a huge challenge to both the main parties, the scale of this has leapt up in the face of growing evidence that – from more severe health impacts to deeper hits to livelihoods, those at the bottom are being hit hardest by the pandemic and economic fallout.
Whilst Boris Johnson’s pledge and early commitments to ‘level up’ those regions of the UK locked out of prosperity over the past decades hit the right note, the government must now act urgently to ensure it can keep this promise in a post-covid world.
Key to this will be focusing job creation in our weakest economies most likely to see a rise in the unemployment rate as the furlough scheme is wound down – and while investment in infrastructure will provide a welcome boost to the supply of jobs, thought must also be given to creating decent opportunities for those losing jobs in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality and retail, many of whom will be women and single mothers.
Linked to this is the need to improve productivity in low-wage, low-productivity businesses and sectors – such as hospitality, retail and leisure – in order to boost wage growth. This can be achieved by improving the quality of work, in particular through the provision of secure contracts, boosting in-work training and enhancing management practices.
And to provide a strong foundation for such initiatives to flourish and for those trapped on low incomes to be able to fully access opportunities, investment in basic, digital and vocational skills must be boosted, along with increased investment in local public transport systems to enable people to travel to where better-quality jobs are.
Meanwhile, the Labour party also need to scrutinise this challenge and urgently revive their offer to low-income voters. Reconnecting with its traditional base if it is to achieve a majority in a future election has never been more urgent.
Recent political change has highlighted the pivotal role that low-income voters are playing in our national politics, and that many people across the country feel cut off from the wealth that others are experiencing.
As we begin to emerge from the covid outbreak and looking ahead to the next election, both main political parties will need to show they have a credible plan to level up the economy so that everyone has the opportunity to get a good job and to live in a community that enables them to be free from poverty, wherever they live. Never has this challenge been more urgent.
Daisy Sands, Head of Policy Campaigns, Joseph Rowntree Foundation