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13 June 2012updated 03 Aug 2021 3:43pm

To win the votes of the “left-behind”, Labour must do more than criticise austerity

By Claire Annesley

Today, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell announced the Labour party would end the modern-day scourge of in-work poverty. At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have described in-work poverty as the defining problem of our current moment: among UK households in poverty, at least half count a family member in work. 

Yet confronting in-work poverty isn’t merely an ethical exercise. Prioritising the concerns of low-income voters is also a strategic move. A report by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath, published this week for JRF, shows low-income votes are more contested than previously thought, and could be pivotal for an electoral win in the next general election.

Low-income voters are turning out in greater numbers. In 2017, there was an increase in turnout among this group by 7 per cent compared to 2015. This is comparable to the “Youthquake” in its long-term importance. Since 1987, people on low incomes have been somewhat less likely to vote than those on high incomes, but the 2017 election was the first election where the turnout gap has narrowed.

The report also showed that low-income voters are not only turning out to vote in greater numbers, but are the most likely group to switch party or change their view. 

This trend could jeopardise Labour’s chances in a general election if it doesn’t wake up to the challenge of attracting low-income voters. More than half of voters on low incomes switched from Labour to the Conservatives between 2010 and 2017. During the same period, the Conservatives have made steady progress among voters on low incomes and gained 5 per cent among this demographic at the last election.

In 2017, the Conservatives had their highest share of the vote among people on low incomes since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. In the 1997 and 2001 elections, over 60 per cent of low-income voters supported Labour – but this decreased by nearly 20 per cent in 2005 and fell further in the 2010 and 2015 elections.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, support for Labour increased by 13 per cent among those on low incomes, reaching 53 per cent of the demographic – the first majority share since Tony Blair’s second term in government. This group is more engaged, and more likely to switch votes between parties than before – meaning both Labour and the Conservatives could yet see rapid reversals in their fortunes.

All of this comes at a moment when the Brexit party is parking its tanks on Labour’s lawn, appealing to the electorate’s desire to deliver Brexit and their concerns over living standards. Concerns around economic policy prevented more struggling families from switching to the Tories and sticking with Labour during the last election. But the party cannot rely on this for the long term.

Low-income voters today are as likely to be struggling financially as much as they were during the 1992 and post-2008 crises. As one working lone parent told JRF, “Life can feel like a hamsters’ wheel: I am working and pushing myself so hard, but feel like I’m stuck. Every week I have school dinner money to give the boys, diesel for my car, food for the house. Most weeks I manage, but it involves rigid meal planning, then going around the supermarket with a calculator to ensure I stay within budget”.

Typically, people who feel their household’s finances deteriorated during the past year are generally more likely to vote for the opposition. In recent years however, these evaluations have become less important, suggesting voters are unsure who to blame, or which party would best improve their circumstances.

Labour cannot simply bank on criticising austerity as part of “one more push” to secure a majority. It needs to keep hold of its existing supporters, win back previous switchers and make an even stronger offer to unlock opportunities, share prosperity and restore pride to towns and cities who feel overlooked.

Restoring that sense of pride is hugely important for people on low incomes. It takes a whole programme of solutions to deliver this, from improving public transport and access to childcare so that people can access better jobs, to delivering true rebalancing between regions, cities and towns through a modern industrial strategy. 

John McDonnell is taking a welcome step in tackling this today, but these findings are still a wakeup call. Labour cannot afford to take low-income voters and their economic concerns for granted, especially in volatile political times.

The party needs a bold offer to connect with people’s pride of place and identity, coupled with a strong offer on improving wages, tackling the cost of living, and rebalancing the economy.

Claire Ainsley is the executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

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