The people whose stories inspire my politics stay with me. When I was parliamentary candidate in Dudley South in 2019, I met many people who I think about often. A young mum recounted how her son had told her that all he wanted for Christmas was a pair of new school trousers. She was visibly emotional as she told us this story at the school gates. Another woman answered the door to one of my canvassers, at her wit’s end as her daughter had been discharged home from hospital, clearly still desperately ill. Was there anything we could do to help?
Is there anything we can do to help?
If there’s one thing that Covid has drawn our attention to, it’s the searing inequalities in our society. Too many people feel powerless and disconnected from decision-making. So, my hope for a golden decade for the West Midlands is that the gold, and power, can be shared out more equitably. I don’t like to talk about levelling up, because that implies there’s endless gold to go round and that those that already have plenty can level up too. I’d prefer to see a balancing out, not a levelling; taking society beyond fairness, to equity.
Oxfam’s latest report into global inequality tells us that the world’s richest ten men have seen their incomes double in the last two years. Even before the pandemic, someone born in the West Midlands in 2019 could expect to live around six years less than someone born in Westminster. The IFS report into inequality and Covid in the UK shows how the pandemic has had a worse impact on the least resilient in our communities, such as those with mental ill health, and those in low-paid or more precarious work. Women, especially racially minoritized women, do the bulk of unpaid care work and this has been exacerbated during the pandemic. The TUC recently reported that over 800,000 working age adults in the West Midlands are living in poverty.
Inequality is dangerous. It drives wedges within society, and, coupled with diminishing trust in our institutions and elected representatives, I believe it’s the most important issue of our era, for the West Midlands, and the whole world. Striving for equity doesn’t mean treating everyone equally, it means giving everyone what they need to flourish. We also know that inequality is a political choice. It is not an inevitability. So, what are some of the choices we should be making?
Fair pay and conditions
I would like to see the West Midlands become a living wage region, building on the progress already made in Birmingham. If key institutions such as the region’s hospital trusts and the business community were to become living wage employers, they would immediately lift some of the lowest paid workers out of in-work poverty, putting money in their pockets which in turn will be spent in our local economy. It’s wrong that care workers are so poorly paid. Care for our elderly and disabled residents is an issue that should be close to all our hearts. They’ve been on the frontline during the pandemic and I would like to see them rewarded not only with better pay, but also better conditions, an end to zero hours contracts and paid travel time between clients. It would be good to see health and care employers across the West Midlands adopt Unison’s Ethical Care Charter.
As we attempt to recover from the heartbreak and economic impact of the pandemic, I would establish a Community Wealth Building Partnership across the West Midlands to create local jobs, support small businesses, charities, and social enterprises, and repurpose local authority procurement to benefit everyone, not just the bottom line. It is wonderful to celebrate events like the Coventry City of Culture and Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games to build up the hospitality, leisure and tourism, and cultural sectors that have been so affected by the pandemic. The recent announcement of Coventry’s Gigafactory and the building of HS2 are huge opportunities for new jobs, and green jobs, but we need to ensure that the work and business opportunities from these are shared equitably.
Food poverty is a huge and growing problem. It is nothing short of shameful that in the sixth richest economy on the planet in the 21st century, our fellow citizens across the region are having to rely on food banks for essential items. We’ve seen through the pandemic how communities have rallied round to support each other. I would like to see the West Midlands develop a comprehensive food strategy, building on the many community activities that have sprung up right across the area. One example is Incredible Edible Leamington Spa, a community food growing project bringing people together and sharing resources. Companies like Iceland are leading the way piloting a food voucher scheme for pensioners in association with Age UK. But voluntary projects can’t tackle these huge problems alone, we need central government action to make sure no one goes hungry.
The West Midlands, like many areas across the UK, is in the grip of a serious housing crisis. Having a warm, dry, safe home plays a huge role in people’s health and wellbeing and there are simply not enough affordable homes for everyone who needs one. Too many renters are having to put up with poor quality accommodation. We need protections for renters and we simply need to be building far more homes. I would like to see local authorities across the region collaborate with the combined authority and national government to ensure more homes are built, with a particular emphasis on repurposing brownfield sites and retrofitting and improving existing housing stock where possible.
Reducing our reliance on roads has to be a priority. Reducing and slowing traffic would reduce the risk of pedestrian – and especially child – fatalities and bring about wider benefits such as less pollution and stronger communities. I welcome Birmingham council’s plans to reduce traffic and short car journeys in the region. I would like to see a Healthy Streets policy, which centres people and their health, adopted throughout the West Midlands. A focus on improvements to public realm, and creating safe, accessible, and attractive streets, would help to bring people back to our oncebustling town and city centres. Whether we’re looking at poverty, jobs, food, housing, or transport, all of these affect people’s health and wellbeing. My vision and hope for the next ten years is that there is commitment across the West Midlands to tackling inequality, whether that’s health, wealth or any other dimension. Decision makers need to implement specific actions with measurable targets keeping those that have the least front of mind. Just like I do when I think of that boy’s school trousers and the woman caring for her bed-bound daughter. My vision and hope is that everyone can have their fair share, today, for the next ten years, and always.