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Who is really left behind?

Author: Manny Hothi, Chief Executive, Trust for London

There is a powerful narrative emerging about the need to address the UK’s regional inequalities, driven by analysis that shows that those towns and cities that had poor economic outcomes were more likely to vote for Brexit.

You cannot argue with the fact that areas of the country that suffered from industrial decline have been poorly served by economic development for several decades. I saw this first-hand in the mid 2000s when, as a community worker in Rhondda Cynon Taff, I worked with communities devastated by the collapse of the mining industry. Entire communities were gripped by poverty. The securely paid jobs in the mines were replaced by low-paid service sector employment that quickly became vulnerable to the new wave of globalisation driven business practice – offshoring.

The case for supporting areas such as Rhondda Cynon Taff that have been ‘left behind’ is strong. But the narrative that accompanies it is increasingly being framed against London. The UK’s capital is being caricatured as a city of elites, where prosperity and power is being horded from the rest of the UK. This increasingly brazen, dare I say populist framing of London, causes division.

Many Londoners have been bypassed by the city’s success

It’s easy for those with influence – politicians, civil society organisations, and journalists – to play on the psyche of those who lack economic opportunity by attacking London. But in doing so, they should be aware that they are attacking a city where nearly half of the population cannot afford a basic decent standard of living. Even for those that earn good wages, housing costs mean that the higher wage does not translate into a higher standard of living.

Proximity to economic success does not mean that you have access to it.

I can hit you with lots of other stats about poverty and inequality in London, but above all this has become an emotional argument. For every person in the Rhondda Cynon Taff who looks at London or Cardiff and feels angry that they have been ‘left behind’, there is someone living in Tower Hamlets staring at Canary Wharf, or in Hackney looking at rental prices, feeling the same. Proximity to economic success does not mean that you have access to it.

We need to build common cause against poverty and inequality

The language of the ‘left behind’ and the positioning of London against other areas of the country ignores this. It conjures the imagined prosperity of all Londoners, when the reality is that many Londoners are struggling as much as those in the Rhondda. There is a strong basis upon which to build solidarity rather than division.

The win-win case for tackling regional inequality is strong. Rebalancing the economy would bring economic opportunity to areas that badly need whilst also reducing the pressure on London, particular the capital’s housing market. More politicians, civil society organisations, and journalists should be making this case.

But above all, the cause of tackling poverty and inequality should not be one that divides those in poverty into those who are ignored and those who are not. We should not underestimate how easy this is to do, just look at how successfully the 2010 Coalition Government managed to divide the poor into strivers and scroungers. Every time a politician, journalist or civil society leader stands up to talk about the ‘left behind’, they should be thinking about the Londoner and the resident in the Rhondda who has been locked out of economic success.

Instead of fighting for which poor people deserve the resources more, we should be arguing that no matter where you live or who you are, you should have access to economic opportunity that allows you to live your life free from poverty.