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    Katy Balls

    The next battleground: why levelling up is key to the next election

    The next battleground: why levelling up is key to the next election
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    The levelling up agenda didn’t start with the 2019 election campaign. Instead, it began in 2016 with the Vote Leave slogan, ‘Take back control’. This was the point at which Labour frontbenchers started to grow concerned that the Conservatives were parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn. ‘It suggested that we are on your side – and these people are not,’ says a member of the shadow cabinet.

    Government policy plans developed from there. The ‘Take back control’ and ‘Levelling up’ slogans aided the realignment of politics in the two general elections since the EU referendum, which have seen the Tories win swathes of seats in the Midlands and North that rarely voted Conservative in the past. Whether they keep those seats rests on which of the two major parties can offer the most compelling message to such voters at the next election.

    There is already anxiety among Tories that the levelling-up agenda is not shaping up in the way it ought to. For the first two years of this parliament, Covid dominated and now the cost-of-living crisis, along with a Tory mutiny over Boris Johnson’s leadership, are the issues taking up ministers’ time.

    In the summer after that 2019 victory, the amount of building work going on in some of the Red-Wall areas was enough to make Labour MPs nervous. Since then, that agenda has faced significant hurdles, with the pandemic increasing the challenge of levelling up as Britain’s more deprived communities have taken the hardest hit from lockdown measures.

    With little new cash to go around, the government’s White Paper on the subject was intended to answer what levelling up is. The general thrust is to show how control is moving back to communities and individuals – simplifying funding for local government.

    But it has divided opinion. While some ministers – such as Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi – herald it as an incredibly important document, others have been left cold by the 329-page paper, which provides a timeline of the largest cities in the world since 7,000 bc from Jericho and Dobrovody to Yinxu and Ayutthaya. As the chair of the Northern Research Group Jake Berry recently put it: ‘No one really knows what levelling up means, but when we see it, we’ll all know.’

    The problem for the government is that this might not be for some time. In the White Paper, a lot of the targets are given a date that is not just beyond the next election, but beyond the one after that too. Among them is the government’s aim to offer every part of England a devolution deal by 2030.

    Labour strategists hope the government having little to point to, combined with many voters feeling worse off, means that Johnson’s grasp on the Red Wall could fall away by the time voters next go to the polls.

    Meanwhile, there are already tentative signs that Labour is making inroads. The party gained control of the new Cumberland council, where all three districts are currently represented by Conservative MPs. This includes Workington – which is significant, because the think tank Onward, founded by the levelling up minister Neil O’Brien, named the swing voter that would decide the 2019 result as Workington Man. He was a northern male aged over 45 without a university degree who previously voted Labour but backed Leave in 2016.

    Even so, members of the shadow cabinet are all too aware that it is not enough simply to point out that the Tories are failing on their levelling up promises. They also need something of their own to say.

    One of the frustrations in recent months among Labour MPs is that for all the shortcomings of the levelling up agenda, their party lacks a narrative to rival it. So, should Labour reclaim the idea for itself – or come up with a new and distinctive message? For now, the party is willing to go along with the language of the Tories – but only to show how Labour would deliver a more successful version.

    The appointment last year of Deborah Mattinson as Sir Keir Starmer’s director of strategy was a key step in addressing this problem. In her 2020 book Beyond the Red Wall, Mattinson tried to answer the question of why constituencies that were once known for steel and manufacturing and are critical to Labour success were tempted by the ‘posh party’. One of her discoveries was the importance of the high street – a desire for it to be revitalised and for people to be able to have a sense of pride in their local areas. She also found in her focus groups a scepticism that levelling up was possible – and that it risked being patronising.

    The sense of local pride is one of the crucial areas being picked up by shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy – with one of her plans being to help 100,000 new small businesses get off the ground so as to boost local economies.

    Labour also views reducing crime as vital to levelling up, along with a renewed focus on buses. Where there is a need for a clearer message is on the green agenda. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has said that, if her party wins the next general election, she plans to be Britain’s greenest ever chancellor with funding plans to boot. However, her colleagues want to work on how that translates both into green jobs in industry and into a message that does not sound too distant.

    Ask a Labour or Tory MP what levelling up means for their party and neither is yet able to offer a uniform answer. But both sides can agree that at the next election a coherent offer to the regions will be key to victory.

    Written byKaty Balls

    Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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