The 2019 election seemed like a genuinely transformative moment in British politics. Once rock-solid Labour seats from Blyth Valley to Sedgefield fell to the Conservatives like nine-pins as people in the so-called Red Wall voted Tory for the first time in their life.
We seemed to be living through a lasting political shift or one of those “sea-changes” in British politics that Jim Callaghan once talked about. Voters in towns where Tories were once deeply distrusted were prepared to put their faith in the Conservative Party in return for the promise that decades of economic and social decline would be addressed and reversed.
These new voters felt comfortable supporting the Tories because they had moved from their economically liberal comfort zone and made clear that they were prepared to use the state to transform “left-behind” places. After years of embracing the economics of Hayek and Gladstone, the Tories seemed ready to rediscover the One Nation ideas of Disraeli and Macmillan again. And the voters made clear that they endorsed this shift.
The electoral coalition that the Tories put together in 2019 represents the party’s only genuine path to victory in 2024. Anything else is just wishful thinking. Given the emphasis in the Conservative leadership contest on winning the next general election, you would have expected discussion about how to maintain the 2019 electoral coalition and tackle regional inequalities would be a dominant feature of the debate.
So far, however, we sadly haven’t heard enough about how the candidates would move the levelling up agenda forward. We’ve heard plenty about “balancing the books”, lots about tax cuts and plenty about “culture war” issues too. Some commentators seem to be yearning for a return to austerity, while others are dreaming of a return to a fantasy Thatcherism.
Instead, a central theme of this leadership contest should be how to maintain levelling up as a governmental priority. Tackling years of regional inequality is too important to be regarded as a second order issue.
Candidates should be setting out how they plan to advance the agenda, including how they would tackle stagnating wages and low productivity. This should include using industrial strategy to create secure, well-paid manufacturing jobs; an education policy that places technical centres of excellence in our forgotten towns; a push to boost research and development spending in the North and Midlands; and a further devolution that empowers communities and workers. Candidates pushing for renewed austerity should explain how they will ensure that such an agenda doesn’t leave lagging regions even further behind.
The neoliberal comfort zone might look like a welcoming place for some Tories, but returning to it would be an electoral dead-end. Putting a transformative agenda of levelling up at the heart of an electoral and governing agenda in 2019 should have represented a lasting realignment, rather than a passing electoral flirtation. Fundamentally, if a Tory prime minister wants to win the next election, make the realignment permanent and leave a positive legacy, they should follow a One Nation agenda with levelling up at its heart.
[See also: Is Fiona Bruce the problem, or is Question Time?]