DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Politics

Why the general election could and should be fought on the frontier of poverty

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak could be ignoring an 'untapped pool of support' without clear policies on poverty

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner on the first day of the general election campaign

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. Image: Keir Starmer/Flickr

The general election campaign may be young, but there are already strong indications as to what politicians will focus on. Rishi Sunak’s rain-drenched speech played on security, protection and global factors like Covid and Ukraine. In return, Keir Starmer emphasised the need for change. Both may be weakening their hand by ignoring a crucial factor: poverty.

Poverty makes people less likely to vote, with low-income voters the least likely to turn out at the ballot box. At the same time, they are also the most open to switching sides. Taken together, experts say there is an “untapped pool of support”.

The numbers are stark. The UK has not seen a fall in poverty in 20 years, and destitution has increased by 148% since 2019. The end of the pandemic has seen an uptick in the UK’s income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, and the Resolution Foundation has predicted a bigger increase in inequality thanks to falling incomes for the poorest households as a result of the cost of living crisis.

Yet neither main party looks set to make this the heart of their agenda – a stark contrast to 2019, when Boris Johnson’s levelling up promises represented an appeal to voters on the sharp end of deep regional inequalities. It delivered an 80-seat majority.

This time around, however, that electoral coalition is unlikely to hold, predicts Oliver Heath, professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“I can’t see Sunak making it a big electoral priority. It’s probably quite likely they’re going to pivot away from Johnson’s strategy of trying to appeal to that demographic. Starmer is probably being too cautious to make it a central issue. He’ll present a very big tent, centrist, non-scary version of the party, that isn’t going to be too radical or promise too much by way of redistribution of taxes,” said Heath.

Traditional ideas of how elections play out – poorer voters sticking with Labour and affluent areas going Tory – have shattered, Heath said. But not voting remains a clear option: “It’ll probably be a low turnout election anyway, compared to previous elections. I think those on low income will probably see some of the biggest drops in turnout.”

He added: “What the last election showed was they’re electorally available. If parties do try and make a pitch towards them and speak to their concerns, they will switch their concerns. It’s not like voting 40 years ago where there’s this really strong loyal vote for Labour.

“There is more for parties to gain to make that pitch, but it needs to be a sincere pitch. If it’s a bit of window dressing tacked on at the end, no one will really take it seriously”

Since 2019, poverty has been on the rise. 7.2 million households lived in food insecurity in 2022/23, up from 4.7 million in 2021/22.

If party leaders are casting around for some policies, the Big Issue has a few more suggestions. Our blueprint for change asks party leaders to commit to ending poverty. Whoever wins the election, the blueprint argues, should introduce universal free school meals for all children, all year round, build more social and affordable housing, outlaw high-interest credit and loans, and replace the current jobseeker benefits system.

“Rising numbers of UK voters are trapped in severe financial hardship, with millions facing hunger and forced into debt. This is likely to be a crucial issue in the coming election,” said Helen Barnard, director of policy at Trussell Trust.

“As our recent public attitudes survey discovered, the public as a whole are deeply concerned about poverty and believe it is a big issue and 74% of people believe the UK government is responsible for tackling it,” says Barnard. 

“Low-income voters are a key demographic for all political parties to win over and lower turnout means this group represents an untapped pool of support. Their higher tendency to switch parties should give every party strong motivation to take their concerns seriously.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
People with learning disabilities need to make their voices heard on election day
Ismail Kaji of Mencap
Learning Disability Week 2024

People with learning disabilities need to make their voices heard on election day

'Great pity' major parties are ignoring poverty in election, says Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell
General election 2024

'Great pity' major parties are ignoring poverty in election, says Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart

How Nigel Farage could become next Tory leader – and why we all should be concerned
General election 2024

How Nigel Farage could become next Tory leader – and why we all should be concerned

'We're in a planetary code red – we need hope': How Labour's manifesto has gone down with young voters
Keir Starmer in front of Labour's campaign bus with the 'change' slogan written on the side
General election 2024

'We're in a planetary code red – we need hope': How Labour's manifesto has gone down with young voters

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know