More needs to be done to truly level up the country (Photo: Getty)
People in different parts of the country headed out to vote this week at a time when our democracy and economy are under severe strain, and our scandalous regional inequalities are widening.
As you read this, families are trapped in an economy in which shop prices are increasing at their fastest rate in more than a decade, unaffordable energy bills are landing on doorsteps, and inflation – currently at 7% - is expected to soar to 10% later this year.
Wages and benefits are not keeping up with this spiralling cost of living. This is causing inequalities like regional divides to widen. Here in the North, around 22% of jobs are paid less than the real living wage and in-work poverty is accelerating. As a result, 3.5 million northerners are trapped in poverty.
National government inaction to support people who need it most, one appalling sleaze story after another, and little to show in local places for the levelling up agenda will likely have left people feeling despondent. This is the context of these elections.
So reports of low turnouts across England are unsurprising. People participate when they feel they are able and it is worth their time to do so.
But trust in politicians is low by international standards, and it declines the further you travel within England from Westminster. The status quo is not working, and political parties and their campaigns have not yet persuaded the country that what they have to offer is worth turning up to vote for.
Indeed, it should not go unnoticed that today’s results will not disrupt the status quo, at least in terms of representation disparities. For example, not one party gender balanced their candidates.
In some cases, we may even be moving backwards – for example, the North’s first female Muslim council leader has lost her seat in Oldham. The lack of concerted action across the board to do politics differently at this election is disappointing, not least because women and girls depend disproportionately on local authority services.
Nevertheless, today’s mixed bag of results matter and show clear geographical differences in voting preferences, demonstrating (while national commentators focus on national issues alone) that people care about what is happening in their local area.
These elections are important in their own right because local leadership matters. Unlike policymakers in Whitehall, local leaders live in and understand their areas. Where they are empowered with the right policy levers and resources, evidence shows that they are more likely to make progressive investment decisions, grow their local economies, lead better public services and help to reduce regional inequalities.
People and institutions elected today have a big challenge ahead. They must do what they can for their areas with the resources they have, and they will need to secure more to go even further.
But for this to happen, central government has to change. Its 2021 allocations of the Levelling Up Fund represent an investment of just £32 per person in the North, compared to a £413 per person drop in annual council service spending over the last decade.
What we’ve seen so far isn’t going to cut it. Westminster’s austerity, which was imposed on local government and had a disproportionate impact on the North, has to be reversed and levelling up must be delivered through a meaningful shift of power and resources from Whitehall, to Town Halls. The electorate will never feel any substance from the levelling up agenda if this does not happen.
Today, commentators are talking about the impact of the election results on the so-called ‘red wall’, a soundbite wrongly used to generalise the North, which is based on parliamentary, not local election boundaries.
But what they should really take from these results is that all parties need to deliver for local places in their own right, on their terms.
Northern voters have shown they know that Conservatives’ promises on levelling up are unrealised but that Labour has not yet given them a viable alternative. The electorate’s patience for action on regional inequality, and a better kind of politics, will not last forever.
We know that it’s possible to design a just and fair economy and deliver a good life for everyone, everywhere in the country. It’s time for political parties to show they’ll deliver it.
Rosie Lockwood is head of advocacy at IPPR North. She tweets @Rosie_Lockwood.