If Covid has taught us anything it is that we are, at heart, a deeply compassionate country. We have fought this virus with the care of our frontline workers and the kindness of our communities. Those reserves of strength will be needed once again as we head towards a second lockdown.
But we also need to ensure that compassion, that kindness, and that community spirit is given a defining political legacy. Covid’s claws have gripped the entire nation but they have dug deepest in areas of the country that were already suffering from poverty and deprivation. That is why death rates have been higher, hospital waiting times longer, and unemployment more prevalent in the north as compared to the south of England. Rebuilding must start here: with a concerted effort to bring financial security, economic prosperity, and above all renewed hope to the north.
That is what I, as an MP for a proudly northern constituency - the constituency of Bury South - was elected to do. In the 2019 election thousands upon thousands of voters in traditional Labour heartlands broke with the past and gave their vote to a Conservative candidate. We have a duty to stand up for them, their concerns, and their fears just as much as we do our traditional supporters. If we as a party do not make good on our commitment to “level up” we risk losing their support. Worse still - we will fail to learn the lessons of Covid and root out the systemic inequality that left many of my own constituents so harshly exposed to the virus.
The first step in achieving that should be to create equality of opportunity through the education system. Children from the north are more likely to leave school with lower grades than their southern peers and are less likely to go on to further education. Those relatively poor outcomes are stifling our children’s life chances. At a national level we need to make helping those who are furthest behind in school our biggest education priority while also expanding opportunities for life-long learning so that no one is left behind by the rapidly changing character of the British economy.
But of course the society those children grow up into must also enable them to flourish as individuals irrespective of where they grew up and the socio-economic background they come from. There is no point in having better schools if the odds are stacked against particular communities when they leave. We know that tough times lie ahead and we need to make sure that those in the north, who have already faced decades of underfunding and disadvantage, aren’t left with an unfair share of the bill.
But how can we make that sort of levelling up actually happen - and fast - given the extra urgency the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic has added already and will continue to have in the North? There is one simple step that we could take right now. Section one of the Equality Act states that every public body should give due regard to inequality of outcomes which result from socio-economic disadvantage. Enacting this simple provision would be a powerful and effective first step in addressing the issues of inequality which have dogged the north and put flesh on the bones of our commitment to level up. Taking this step would ensure that discrimination of those who have least is treated as seriously in law as discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, and ethnicity.
This is more than just a matter of inequality in earnings and income. It’s about providing equality of hope. Too many people throughout England lack the economic opportunities that many others take for granted. In my own constituency, thousands of workers were thrown onto the metaphorical scrapheap when the giant paper mills of Radcliffe and the engineering plant on the Bury Road closed their doors. The value of those factories was not only measured by the materials they produced. They also created self-worth, opportunity, and hope. It’s those feelings that I want to bring back to the people of Bury and to the constituents across the north who have felt left behind by the pace of economic change that has swept through Britain in the last four decades.
In pursuing this strategy I believe the government will have the public on its side. Polling carried out by Compassion in Politics and Opinium - and released exclusively for this article - shows that after health, economic inequality is the issue voters are most concerned about. It also found that 57% of people believe we need to introduce better economic and social rights and protections. Nowhere is that more pertinent than in the north - a region rocked first by rapid de-industrialisation and now by Covid. As we rebuild our lives and re-establish our identity, we will need the empowering hand of the state to protect, power, and propel our livelihoods into a new and I hope brighter future.