“Devolution through metro mayors doesn’t work.” So said the Metro Mayor of West England, Dan Norris, in a cramped Jubilee Room beside Westminster Hall last night. Norris was speaking at the launch of a new report from the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up. He explained why the requirement that spending decisions receive unanimous support from councils produces stasis – resulting in, for instance, an unspent housing budget. Add that to the list of problems a Labour government would face.
Labour politicians rarely talk about “levelling up” now, and it didn’t feature in Keir Starmer’s five national missions. Many commentators say they don’t know what “levelling up” is. For me it simply means redressing chronic regional inequality. In that sense, Labour seems to be approaching levelling up from two angles: streamlined devolution and capital investment through the green prosperity plan.
Let’s focus on devolution. Labour’s proposed “take back control” bill would flip the presumption of power from Whitehall to local government, placing a legal duty on the national government to explain why devolution hasn’t occurred. But what form that devolution would take remains vague. Labour would inherit a sclerotic economy. It would also inherit a series of chaotic deals already in place.
There is disagreement within local authorities about how to proceed, partly because local actors can often veto a devolution deal if they don’t like it. It’s also because local authorities sometimes don’t work together even once one has been agreed. As Norris said at the launch, what might work in Manchester – where consensus is realistic among the Labour-run councils – won’t work in the west of England where agreement is often elusive.
These are problems Labour must address. It’s worth doing so politically and in terms of policy. Politically, because levelling up remains important for the electorate: 68 per cent think the government should redistribute money from better-off to worse-off places to tackle regional inequality, according to YouGov and UK in a Changing Europe. And this isn’t about New Labour-esque redistribution: the figure falls when talking about redistributing between people instead of places.
Equally, Labour needs to fix the country’s distorted, unbalanced economy. A new report from the Fabian Society finds the UK’s regional inequality in household income is the highest of any major developed country.
Even if it may have dropped the “levelling up” slogan, Labour promises to act. But as with most of its programme, the details remain opaque.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: How would Labour do levelling up?]