The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inherent flaws and inequalities that harm our society. As a recent report by the UN has highlighted, thanks to Covid-19 worldwide poverty is increasing for the first time in 22 years, based on the MPI’s definition of poverty being those earning less than $1.90 a day. Given that there is already justified criticism of the UN’s baseline setting of $1.90 as being too low a dividing line, the actual scale of worldwide poverty could be worse.
However, regardless of whether you subscribe to one way of measuring poverty or another, the situation is dire. Whilst according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation absolute poverty in the UK has remained consistent at 22% (which is deplorable in itself) for the past 15 years, poverty has increased for those in work, pensioners and children exponentially over the past decade. This is not simply due to public spending cuts but it is also due to a lack of investment in communities.
Across Britain we have seen companies sacking staff and moving their operations to other countries. This is not simply due to coronavirus or Brexit but a long-term trend that has left communities vulnerable and more likely to slip into poverty. To suggest that is solely due to globalisation would be an inaccurate reading of the situation.
Millions of people across Britain rely on employers or work that is not based in the UK. Whilst many on the left and right may argue that leaving the EU will allow Britain to successfully deal with the societal deprivation caused by companies leaving British shores, this is not the answer. Either by undercutting our competitors in standards or relaxing tax laws, we won’t bring economic stimulus to communities that are seeing a rise in child, in-work or pension-based poverty.
The answer is one both major parties seem to accept – level up the playing field and invest in communities. Whilst the Prime Minister has spoken at length about his desire to invest across the North of England by ploughing millions into infrastructure projects, his words feel hollow.
This is not simply because of his character but rather that of his party. Theresa May promised to help the ‘Just About Managings’ and David Cameron’s Big Society was intended to offset austerity by encouraging community projects. Both came to naught – the former due to Brexit and the latter because it proved to be a colossal waste of public money that provided few results.
Labour are more committed to investing in infrastructure, but their plans are not entirely clear yet. For them to be they have to be based in reality – whilst free broadband would be nice, it is far better to focus on getting it to everyone; 5% of UK households have no access to it. Similarly, businesses are struggling under the level of rates they pay for letting stores. This has a direct impact on both the high street and unemployment. To level up we have to invest in infrastructure and ensure that the laws that govern letting do not harm communities.
To truly level up we must focus on the need for stimulus that allows communities to become more self-sufficient. The Conservative Party claim to be the party of business yet they hurt local businesses by stopping them growing both online and in the high street.
Indeed, the Chancellor’s suggested new tax on online shopping will likely harm businesses rather than help the high street as he has argued. To truly level up across the country we must focus on community projects that contribute to them rather than seeming grand gestures.
The priority should be to ensure that communities can function not just in the wider context of the global economy but also in the context of the national economy. A great failure of government is the inability to comprehend that some businesses will, by their very necessity, have to be locally based; no one should or would expect a local greengrocer or tearoom to become a multinational company. The Conservatives have in the past prided themselves on being the party of business and community, yet they have failed to recognise the inherent differences between the type of businesses that exist in local communities.
To truly level up, we must recognise this and treat businesses appropriately. Grading businesses on a scale or indexing their reliance on a global infrastructure may be useful to help distinguish the differences between them but it may also simplify the situation and appear to resolve it – an issue that plagues modern government.
The recent debacle over A Levels is a demonstration of just this – rather than ensuring that the grading system worked to begin with, public protests forced the government into a u-turn that relied on gesture politics. Whilst the u-turn is welcome it demonstrates the key problem with politics today.
Rather than focussing on how the policy will impact individuals, policy has been far too concerned with looking like it solves a problem rather than solving the problem itself. Indeed, the exam debacle proves that this government isn’t sincere in wanting to level up or else why would its algorithm consistently downgrade excellent students simply because of the school that they go to?
This is something that both major parties must recognise if they wish to have a sustained impact on struggling communities. Solutions are not always forthcoming but the tokenistic attempts to help – such as giving one new laptop to schools – will fundamentally not redress the balance between affluent and non-affluent areas.
Nor will simply continuing to invest money without key support and internal drive from the communities themselves. Government must invest in infrastructure and services like hospitals and libraries and support local businesses when they need it, yet they must also help communities to find their own voice and drive economic reliance from themselves.
It is easy to think that government intervention will be the magic bullet to revive communities, but this isn’t the case. Who better than to help keep communities together than the people who live in them? They know better than any outsider the cost of economic inequality.
We must in this time of economic and social upheaval recognise that if we do not address the rising inequality in our communities across the country, we will see them disappear. No nation wishes to see itself torn asunder, but this will happen if we don’t inject communities with realistic solutions to their problems.
Will Barber Taylor
Will is a writer and member of the Labour Party. He is passionate about local communities and progressive politics that can help people. He is reading History at the University of Warwick and is working on a short book on Philip Snowden.