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20 March 2023

Conservative voters and Northerners feel most betrayed by levelling up

Most Brits – but especially Tory supporters – think the government’s flagship policy is having no impact.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In a blow to the government’s reputation within a week of the Budget, a large majority of the British public feel levelling up is having no impact, or a negative one, according to a report shared exclusively with the New Statesman.

When asked about their local area, 56 per cent of Britons say the flagship Tory policy to rebalance the economy is having no impact and 14 per cent a negative impact, according to polling by Opinium for Power to Change, an independent trust that works with community businesses hoping to benefit from levelling up. Just 11 per cent of people think levelling up is having a positive impact.

Conservative voters are even more negative about the policy: 66 per cent of people who voted Conservative in the 2019 general election feel levelling up is having no impact, compared with 58 per cent of Labour voters and 62 per cent of Lib Dem voters. The majority of 2019 Tory voters don’t trust the Conservative Party to level up their area, at 54 per cent.

The same proportion of Conservative voters as Labour voters, 11 per cent, say levelling up has had a positive impact.

[See also: What does the Budget mean for levelling up?]

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Ironically for a policy intended to spread prosperity outside the capital, particularly to the “Red Wall” north, Londoners are more likely than anyone else to praise it. Eighteen per cent of London-based respondents say it’s having a positive impact, compared with just 10 per cent of northerners, 12 per cent of people from the Midlands and 9 per cent of southerners outside the capital. Northerners are most likely to say that levelling up is not tackling the key issues in their neighbourhoods, at 66 per cent, compared with 59 per cent of Midlanders, 58 per cent of non-London southerners and 56 per cent of Londoners.

Overall, 66 per cent of people don’t trust the Conservative Party to level up their area, compared with 48 per cent who wouldn’t trust the Labour Party to do so. Sixty-four per cent think their high street is getting worse, while only 8 per cent think it has got better since 2019.

Boris Johnson’s promise to “level up” the UK was a central part of his election campaign in 2019, and four years on the Conservatives’ vulnerability to a narrative of betrayal is acute. So far over £11bn has been distributed through levelling up funds, but it has clearly failed to make an impression on people at a community level. This is likely to be down to complex and resource-intensive bidding processes (the “beauty contest” of local areas competing for rounds of funding), delays in the allocation of funding, and the short-term, fragmented nature of the funding pots, according to Power to Change’s report.

Tim Davies-Pugh, chief executive of Power to Change, said: “[Our] polling points to the need for more action, such as establishing new powers at the neighbourhood level and working with communities to tackle high street decline. Our research shows that the agenda is still a work in progress and more needs to be done for it to make an impact before the next general election.”

A perception that the promise of this policy has been broken, particularly in the Red Wall seats that made a historic shift to the Tories in 2019, is an electoral risk – and one that the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s plan for “12 new Canary Wharfs” across the country seems unlikely to offset.

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]

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