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Reaching out to the ‘Left Behind’: what policies should we put first?

March 14, 2017 12:30 PM
By Lord William Wallace in Liberal Democrat Voice

Lord William Wallace (Alan Williams)The pitch which the Leave campaign successfully made to the poorest 10% of UK citizens in last June's EU Referendum was that their problems of low pay, insecure jobs and waiting lists for affordable housing were all due to competition from immigrants, and would be eased by leaving the EU. The budget, with little on social housing and less on funds for schools or other public services in deprived areas, has made their situation worse, rather than better. Labour has been hesitating about how far to buy into their grievances about immigrants. How should Liberal Democrats respond to their resentments and needs?

The peers' working group on 'The Left Behind' is now drafting an initial report. We have worked through a mass of relevant material, from think tanks, foundations and parliamentary reports. We've also discussed, among ourselves and with others, our direct experiences from campaigning in urban working class communities and rural and seaside towns - the places, BBC News detailed breakdowns suggested, that had the largest majorities for 'Leave' in the UK. Studies like last year's Suffolk Community Foundation on 'Hidden Suffolk', and the Open Society Foundation's report on Higher Blackley, have been very useful: can any of you point us to other studies elsewhere?

At the Spring conference in York on Friday evening (2015-2130, Novotel Meeting Room 1&2), we look forward to hearing from others about what policies we should be pushing forward. Some of you represent such communities, many of them taken for granted by Labour and ignored by the Conservatives. How do we win more of them over, rather than leaving them to be picked over by UKIP or worse? Support for families and small children, education through from primary school, closer links between schools and local employers, support for local industrial regeneration, and investment in social housing, are the main elements in our emerging package.

We're also aware that there's a larger problem of political disengagement and community decline that needs to be addressed, on which we welcome comments. The shrinkage of local public services means that 'the state' is in many ways abandoning these communities: local authorities are cutting children's services, beat policing, bus routes and more as government grants disappear. Resentment is increased, many observers report, by the perception that 'metropolitan elites' now demonise these communities - journalists as well as politicians. But there's also a poverty of aspiration in some of these communities, which holds the younger generation back: how do we tackle that?

These are our fellow-citizens: denigrated by the political right, neglected by Labour, with even those local authorities who want to help struggling in the face of budget cuts to make a difference. Liberal Democrats care about inequality, about opportunity, and about social mobility - all of which are at stake in the long-term neglect of these marginalised communities. We already represent some of the wards they live in, and are beginning to win by-elections in others. So what policy responses should we offer them - and how do we persuade richer groups within our national community to pay for them? Come and give us your views on Friday evening if you can.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.