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10 March 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:03am

How Labour can turn the Tories’ “levelling up” agenda against them

The Conservatives have a potent political slogan. Yet they don’t seem to realise real “levelling up” is not about places, but the people in them. 

By Philip Collins

Regular readers of the Bolton News will already be aware of the big story of the week. Anyone discarding the trivia of the national press for the political wisdom of the Express and Star in Wolverhampton, the Great Yarmouth Mercury, the Newark Advertiser or the Colchester Gazette will have the story. I have spent the week reading the papers and they tell me that Labour has a problem. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been handing out money to the provinces and they like it.

The £3.6bn granted through the Towns Fund and the Community Renewal Fund is the purest pork barrel politics, of course. There are no published criteria for the selections, in which ministers took a suspiciously close interest. Remarkably, of the 45 towns that will receive funding, 40 have Conservative MPs. Cheadle, just south of Manchester, fulfils nobody’s idea of deprivation but it is on the list. The leader writers at the Cheadle and Tean Times are besides themselves with joy. So is the local Tory MP who won the seat in 2019 with a majority of 2,336.

Richmondshire in North Yorkshire is 256th on the list of the most deprived local authority areas. Hull, the fourth most deprived place in the country, is not on the list. Jacob Rees-Mogg told one of the Hull MPs, Diana Johnson, that the fund was needed after “decades of socialist mismanagement”, which rather suggests the money should have gone to the Labour places that need it most. The Yorkshire Post has a good account of the squall if you want to join in below the line. Its report does include the probably coincidental fact that Richmondshire happens to be the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s constituency.

This sort of cheating irritates opposition politicians to distraction. Yet a distraction is precisely what it is. The Towns Fund raises a much more important question, more important even than the relative provincial deprivation that has led to its creation. Politics after the pandemic will be defined by choices made about tax and spend, and by the government’s attempt to make a success of what even Rees-Mogg is now programmed to call “levelling up”. The abiding importance of the Towns Fund is that it provides a clue as to what levelling up might mean, and a clue therefore as to how Labour might best confront it.

To the Conservatives, levelling up is not likely to go all that far beyond the pork barrel. To be sure, they will get an even bigger barrel. There will be roads tarmacked, bridges built, broadband accelerated, signals repaired on local train lines and community centres spruced up – the sorts of things that were commonplace in the Labour Party’s attempt in the late 1990s to repair the Conservative-led deindustrialisation of the 1980s. The 1998 New Deal for Communities and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal channelled £4bn of public money into similar areas for similar reasons. The very fact that the government is now doing it again suggests it didn’t work. If levelling up is simply about funnelling money to the towns then, pace the Boston Standard, it isn’t going to work.

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[see also: What do Jake Berry and the Tory Northern Research Group want?]

It is not likely to do a great deal to boost regional productivity and growth either. If levelling up means equalising the growth rates across the regions of the country then the key to that ambition is the prosperity of the Labour cities, not the Tory towns. The towns that are prospering most in the north-west of England, for example, are those that have been able to share in the long renaissance of Manchester as a great city. The actual ambition of levelling up, defined as regional equality, does not suggest that a Towns Fund is a plausible idea.

Levelling up, though, remains a potent political slogan, at least for the time being. It is a hard thing to oppose. Labour MPs in the areas that received Towns Fund largesse did not want to offer a disobliging quote to their local paper. Any that were tempted to do so would have come across as the local curmudgeon.

Yet there is a way of turning this debate to good effect for the Labour Party. The Chancellor is, seemingly very much against his own personal instincts but on the strict instruction of the Prime Minister, validating the idea that public spending is vital in pursuit of the goal of equality. Sunak doesn’t believe in this but the Labour Party does, and in time it could prove helpful that the government is legitimising the party’s central proposition.

Yet there will only ever be a political dividend if the government is seen to fail. Labour therefore needs to hold the Conservatives to the promise of levelling up. The way to do that is to impose a definition. Left to their own devices, the Tories will define levelling up in the most minimal way possible: through the money that travels north from Westminster. Even the distant goal of regional equality will be discarded soon enough.

Real levelling up, though, is not about places. It is about people in places. A government that is serious about achieving equality would be setting itself targets for educational attainment, for university entrance, for life expectancy, for morbidity, for pay and progression. It would be talking about the everyday details of people’s life chances, not just applying a lick of paint to a dilapidated town or, in the case of Sunak’s patch, another coat of paint where none is required.

This is the way to turn the Tories’ levelling up agenda against them. Keir Starmer’s next big intervention should welcome the ambition and then define it in a way that horrifies the Tories, philosophically because they don’t agree, and practically because they know they can’t achieve it. Take the Conservative Party at its word and help the public work out that its words are cheap. 

[see also: Why the UK’s “Attlee moment” should include local government]

This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation