New Times,
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  1. Election 2024
  2. Labour
28 March 2024

So is Labour going to level Britain up or not?

Like the rest of Keir Starmer’s policy platform, economic growth underpins everything.

By Freddie Hayward

Are you ready to power up Britain? The boffins over at Labour HQ have devised a substitute for Boris Johnson’s much-pilloried “levelling-up” agenda. At the launch of Labour’s local election campaign in Dudley today, Angela Rayner, Labour’s levelling-up secretary, described the slogan as a “burnt-out shell” and said she would “finally put out the dying embers of this patronising game the Tories play”. She pointed to the Oliver Twist process in which councils have to apply to Whitehall for funding, and argued that Labour would move away from the Tories’ failed system to deliver on that famous promise from the 2019 election. Instead, we were told Labour’s plan was to “power up Britain”.

Rayner, admittedly, has not made “levelling up” – which can be understood as reducing regional inequality – central to her brief since getting the job. In her first speech in the role, she conflated levelling up with workers’ rights, putting the party in the awkward position of having to explain how improving everyone’s employment rights would close the gap between London and the north on, say, transport spending.

And now she has committed to moving away from the very slogan that captured the nebulous concept of reducing regional inequality. Sure, this is just a slogan. But slogans, as the past nine years have shown, matter in politics. The slogan seemed to have started to get some cut through: it was becoming an apolitical term that both parties used. Even Keir Starmer admitted in his speech today that “of course [the slogan] struck a chord”. Dropping it risks leaving Labour’s promise to reduce regional inequality without an identity. 

What about the policy itself? The briefing document that accompanied the launch confirmed that Labour views levelling up – or powering up, or whatever – in terms of economic growth, decentralisation and devolution. Its take back control bill will streamline the devolution process that has been ad hoc and inconsistent under the Conservatives. The green prosperity plan will deliver investment around the country. Long-term funding settlements for research and development will foster growth, etc. In other words, large swathes of the party’s platform became its levelling-up strategy.

Party insiders point to the fact that Labour promises to grow the economy in every region of the UK. This, they say, is what will actually reduce regional inequality. Ultimately, everything comes back to growth.

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Take poor local-government funding, a central obstacle to reducing regional inequality. In a post-match interview with Sky News, Starmer said that councils – who have seen their central government funding cut by 40 per cent in real terms since 2010 – would not see a cash injection from a Labour government. With councils declaring bankruptcy as almost frequently as they collect the bins, it’s not clear how sustainable this position is. The Conservatives have already had to deliver an unplanned bailout to councils. Starmer said they will have to wait for that magic ingredient: economic growth. That is what will determine whether the party has the power to close the gap between the south east and everywhere else – whatever Labour calls it.

[See also: Slave to the Bomb]

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