If one person could be said to embody the difference powerful communities can make to a life it is Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner.
She told the audience at New Local’s Stronger Things Community Power event this week that as young person who became pregnant at 16 she has known what both empowerment and disempowerment feel like.
Nimbly drawing the whole room into her story, she said we can ‘all think about moments in our lives where we have felt powerless, or stuck, or like we couldn’t change the situation that we were in’.
She asked delegates gathered at London’s Guildhall to ‘apply that scary thought, of a teen mother with no levers to pull to change her situation… to a whole town’.
By personalising the importance of empowering people in their own communities, she connected herself into a huge and passionate wave of audience goodwill. She told them: ‘Just as I was fortunate as a teen mum to be pulled up by incredible investments into young people and mothers, every village, town and city in Britain can be pulled up with the right support.’
And in a dig that chimed well with delegates, she said communities ‘know better than the Prime Minister or the so-called levelling-up secretary what the problems are and what the solutions might be’.
Empowering people includes giving them the levers to deepen the ‘connections in neighbourhood’ she believes. Speaking to The MJ ahead of her keynote talk, she says communities faced challenges even before the pandemic, and were now dealing with the global impact of the war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis that the Resolution Foundation has calculated will push 1.3m households into absolute poverty.
‘In 2010 the Conservative-led government decided that it needed to impose austerity. That was a decision about how they were going to deal with the global economic crisis that we had at the time. So public services, and a lot of the support that was available, had been cut dramatically during that period.
‘Then when you went into the pandemic, you went in there without that safety net, that resilience of our public sector and our voluntary sector to support communities.’
And speaking in the week that sees the largest energy price rise in living memory, she continues: ‘And now of course coming out of the pandemic with the cost of living including fuel and energy prices going up families are really struggling. And people that are really on the breadline have been taken to the brink.
‘There is no give, there is no leeway for them. They’re literally living hand-to-mouth and the chancellor has done nothing to alleviate that.’
Criticising the Government for not imposing a windfall tax on energy companies, she says they had chosen to go for a tax hike at the same time as having ‘low growth’ in the UK economy. She thinks this is ‘disastrous for us at the moment when we’re looking for recovery from the global pandemic and I think it’s the wrong choice at the wrong time.’
While things were difficult for her as a young person she ‘never had to be dehumanized and humiliated by having to go to a foodbank. Because even when in work people are struggling now’.
Hitting out at the Government’s ‘short-termism’ in its approach to putting more resources into the places hit most by deprivation, she says her local council Tameside, in ‘one of the most poverty stricken areas’ has lost over 50% of its funding.
She adds: ‘What the Government has done is put little pockets of money in here and there and said “this is for this specific project” but not fundamentally dealt with the causes of where that poverty is coming from.’
In her view, the centre has ‘really disabled communities and then blamed them for their own inability to prosper’.
‘Actually if they invested more longer-term rather than a little pocket [of money] here on a vanity project which is usually where they think they can target a seat to win or a seat that’s got a Conservative MP. That’s not the way of really dealing with some of the structural problems that we’ve faced in our economy on how we can actually drive investment into areas like the North.’
She concludes: ‘They have slogans like levelling up, but it feels like we’re all being levelled down rather than there being a long term investment.’
What she does identify are ‘lots of little pockets of community spirit’. These are the people who ‘try to get past government organisations or go round them because they don’t see those as enabling them’.
In conclusion, she sees the ‘levers of state as being enablers - they should enable communities and people to thrive and enjoy their lives’.
She adds: ‘People are wanting to do well. They just haven’t got any more money to stretch. Families are really trying their hardest.
‘Government should be recognising how much people are doing and try to support them to make good choices so they can thrive and do more and enable them to live prosperous lives.’
Videos of the Stronger Things event will be available soon on the New Local YouTube channel