Voters who feel left behind want their concerns to be heard. A more inclusive economy offers a way to reconnect with them
Over the last year, we have lived through two key moments in British democracy: the EU referendum and the general election. The immediate aftermath of the referendum vote revealed a profoundly divided Britain – divided on the basis of the politics of place as well as by age, ethnicity and income. As analysis at the time suggested – and recent Populus polling has confirmed – many of those who voted for Brexit felt left behind and ignored by politicians. The referendum also revealed divisions that were intersectional; challenging a politics that had for too long assumed a more homogenous society, with relatively simple divides on class and income lines, than was in fact the case.
The second key moment was this year’s general election, which delivered a hung parliament, a dramatic increase in turnout from 18 to 24-year-olds and an unexpected increase in vote share for the Labour party after seven years of Conservative-led government. This was no ‘status quo’ election – the message of ‘strong and stable’ from the Conservative party was starkly rejected. Both the referendum and the general election were ‘change’ elections: many voters turned out for both because they wished to reject a narrative of economic and political stability – one which they felt was not working in their interests. There is a shift underway, with NatCen’s latest British Social Attitudes Survey reporting that 48 per cent of citizens now support higher tax and spending, up from 32 per cent at the start of austerity in 2010; as well as greater redistribution of income.
If it were not clear before, it is now clear that the way economic and political institutions engage with citizens and respond to their voices needs to change. For too long, policy has sought to do things ‘to’ people, rather than with them. Recent events demonstrate the need for progressives to turn to the task of forging a strong narrative about economic inclusion and shared prosperity.
Towards an inclusive economy
In Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson argue that political and economic institutions can be inclusive and support a prosperous economy, or extractive and undermine a prosperous economy.
The critical distinction between an extractive and an inclusive economy, Acemoğlu and Robinson argue, is whether economies allow those who are economic and political elites to serve their own interests (‘extractive’) or whether they create incentives that mean the interests of all must be served (‘inclusive’). It is important to stress that this is not necessarily a binary distinction. The value of this insight is not that some economies are ‘inclusive’ and others are ‘extractive’ – but rather, that we have a spectrum on which we can place economies. Institutions can seek to become less extractive and more inclusive, and Britain is no exception to this analysis.
In this context, it is vital too to reflect on the Grenfell Tower fire, where 80 people are, at the time of writing, reported to have lost their lives. The image of this burning tower block has fast become emblematic of the systemic failure of the few towards the many. It has underlined the need for much more effective ways for the public to hold politicians and policymakers to account. In a democracy, people must have a voice in shaping policies that tackle social problems. If British society fails to address inequality and poverty, that represents not just a deep economic policy failure, but also a democratic deficit. As it stands, our democracy is not functioning as well as it could be and there must be ways to improve it.
Here, the work of the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council, the action and research programme making the case for citizens to influence economic policy, is instructive. As part of our action research, we have spoken to more than 160 citizens from some of the UK’s most left-behind and economically excluded groups. We engaged with young people in schools, with people from a range of ethnic minority backgrounds, with LGBTQI people, with care workers, and with disabled people. We met people in Clacton-on-Sea, which had returned a Ukip MP, and citizens in Oldham, Glasgow, London, Port Talbot and inner-city Birmingham. Despite the considerable differences in views and unique experiences in these different places, people’s sense of inequality – in treatment, in ability to influence the system, and in their ability to feel part of the system – was a consistent theme. For those of us grappling with the challenge of how to reconcile the values of a liberal and open society with addressing the concerns of many of those in the ‘left-behind’ parts of our country, there are some real reasons for hope and optimism – as long as we listen to what is being said. Tackling social and economic inequality head-on offers an opportunity to reconnect with those who have been left behind.
How can we create a more inclusive economy?
To address both democratic and economic exclusion, economic policymaking must change in three important and interlinked ways. First, people must be heard, not just listened to. Second, we must promote a model of active citizenship and human flourishing. Third, we must invest in people and their places.
These three points are interlinked because they are interdependent. To be able to hear what people are really saying, treating their contributions as more than just token input, requires the power and ability to respond to and invest in them. It requires us to understand that they are active citizens and potential agents of change, rather than simply passive recipients of public services. Any concept of active citizenship that is to move beyond rhetoric must itself promote a relationship between state and citizens that is collaborative and based on equality and trust. It must move beyond the inequality of power that often exists between state and citizens. And we have to invest in order to address the material hardship that can otherwise make flourishing, agency and participation impossible to achieve.
1. People must be heard, and not just listened to
“ I feel I have no voice in society. I don’t have a concept of my voice being heard.” Participant, Coppice Neighbourhood Community Centre, Oldham
Many participants intuitively drew the connection between an economy that excludes and a political system that excludes. For instance, when we asked residents in Port Talbot about the impacts of deindustrialisation on their localities and areas, we heard their realism about how globalisation had affected demand for UK steel; but also a deep-seated frustration about the lack of power they felt they had to influence responses in their local area and hence their hopes for prosperity.
Few had much trust in politics, in the media, in councils or in government to listen to their voices. Many didn’t believe that anything they said mattered, or that anyone was really interested in listening to them. On the occasions that they were consulted it was viewed as being tokenistic – a pat on the head rather than a genuine conversation with respect for their views. The language of ‘distance’ – of being ‘listened to’ or being ‘asked what they thought’ without a sense of being able to influence decision-making – was widespread.
2. We must promote active citizenship and participation
“ We work closely with the government, the local authority – we think we can do a better job as we are crowdsourcing ideas from the bottom up, it’s all about what the community want and what they are going to support. Here we have the ideas, we have the enthusiastic volunteers, we know how to solve our own problems – we just need the funding to get on with it.” Participant, Ardenglen Housing Association, Glasgow
We spoke with some participants in a local community group REVIVE, who were given a small amount of NHS funding and supported by a local housing association, Ardenglen, to run activities such as gardening, walking and other forms of exercise for older women in one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas. When the funding ran out, the group felt they had enough of a stake in the initiative to keep it going – and it continues to this day.
This is a powerful story that illustrates the way in which policy can build the capacity of people to lead change in their social networks and their communities. With the right support, people can have a greater stake in their relationships with other people, in their communities and in the outcomes of the change that they have created.
Policymaking, done with people, can generate a ‘ripple effect’ – ensuring that positive social change can be sustained beyond, and multiplied through, an initial intervention from government, civil society and others.
We found that citizens – including those citizens who experience financial and economic exclusion – demonstrate, benefit from, and value social leadership. Very often, in such circumstances, social leadership is forged from necessity; building more informal social networks and relationships to build resilience. But many also spoke of the untapped potential citizens had to demonstrate social leadership that could have been realised had they access to greater, more targeted support that understood the needs of the community – both financial and non-financial. Political and economic institutions need to understand much better and more profoundly what the right support might be. That requires having processes in place to ask citizens, understand the barriers they face, and understand what investment is required to address those barriers.
3. Investing in people and place – from rhetoric to reality
“The fuse has been taken out of Port Talbot. The town was embedded with the steelworks. Now it’s gone, the town has lost its identity.” Participant, Baglan community centre, Port Talbot
Our dialogue with citizens in Port Talbot underlined just how deeply the steelworks and related industry were tied to the identity and economy of the town. Many participants highlighted how many community, social and support ties had been inextricably linked to the steelworks and started to vanish once the number of jobs began to fall. They connected the decline of the steelworks with a decline not only in their own economic security, but in their own sense of agency and ability to flourish.
The steelworks have been so important precisely because of these benefits they brought to people and place – enabling as many people as possible to benefit from employment opportunities and creating a sense of local pride and identity. The value of institutions such as the steelworks is enhanced when people and place are able to connect to its benefits; and is diminished when places and neighbourhoods are less able to do so. The real challenge for policymakers is not simply to invest and in some cases ‘regenerate’, but to ensure that investment and regeneration has community buy-in, benefiting as many people as possible.
A strong theme across the country was how the decline in community and support services because of spending cuts had affected people’s sense of belonging to a single, cohesive community.
In Oldham, we spoke to a group of minority ethnic citizens from Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds, many of whom faced significant language barriers, about their frustrations in accessing education, housing and other social opportunities. Many felt disempowered by the disappearance of local civic support, such as translation services, which could have helped to break down communication barriers across diverse communities, strengthen community cohesion, and improve dialogue between individuals and local public services such as the police, the local authority, the NHS and emergency services.
These kinds of initiatives, promoting better dialogue and understanding, form an important part of investment in people and place. Early years support, education, skills and lifelong learning projects, early action and early intervention work and investment in community development and capacity building are all crucial in helping people, communities and places connect to the benefits of economic activity.
An economy that includes everyone
As our conversations show, whilst there are high levels of distrust in the political and economic system, this does not translate into apathy. Indeed, citizens revealed an appetite for change and meaningful involvement. Investment that is focused on people and places and that promotes active citizenship and participation – inclusive growth – will go some way towards addressing the disaffection, distrust and disempowerment felt by many of those in the areas and communities seen as left behind. But more is required. A culture of innovation in our democracy is vital. We could open the space for engagement up through piloting innovations such as participatory budgeting, which a World Bank study revealed to be particularly effective in Porto Alegre, Brazil at helping to tackle social and economic exclusion. We could test the widespread use of more deliberative conversations such as citizen juries and the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council. We could also build upon the use and effectiveness of poverty, fairness and democracy commissions across the UK.
But initiatives that allow citizens to wield influence and share power are only one part of the picture. Engagement and participation must also be designed in a practical way that recognises structural inequalities as well as dynamics of power and privilege. They must support the creation of safe spaces that equip marginalised citizens to speak out. Engagement and participation must be adequately resourced to ensure those with lived experience are able to be in the room. We need a democracy in which anyone can speak truth to power, and an economy in which everyone is included.
Everybody’s Voices Heard: An Economy That Includes Everyone is available here.