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How would Labour do levelling up?

Labour's shadow levelling up minister, Alex Norris, on the opposition's plans for devolution and regional policy.

By Jonny Ball

In 2008, Labour contested the Crewe and Nantwich by-election as the repercussions from the sub-prime mortgage and banking crises were only starting to emerge. Against an incumbent party reeling from global economic collapse stood nine other candidates, including a man who had legally changed his name to “The Flying Brick” (for the Monster Raving Looney Party), and a former Miss Great Britain, Gemma Garrett, standing for the “Beauties for Britain” party.

Into this surreal contest stepped a 24-year-old Labour activist, Alex Norris, complete with walking cane, top hat and coat-tails. Norris posed for the cameras in front of a billboard featuring the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson. His mission was to hammer home a message to the party’s core voters: forget the “hug a hoodie” Conservative rebrand of David Cameron, our opponent in Crewe is out of touch – a classic “Tory toff”.

The stunt backfired. It was derided in the press as harking back to class war – “patronising” and “divisive”, even in the view of the usually supportive Guardian. Norris was accused in the Daily Mail of the utmost hypocrisy, having attended a fee-paying school himself. The Conservatives went on to win the by-election, inflicting an 18 per cent swing against Labour. The result was to portend Labour’s disastrous election performance two years later, which ushered in a decade of austerity.

Today, Norris has ditched the coat-tails and is the shadow minister for levelling up and the MP for Nottingham North. Now 39, he’s talking over Zoom, nominally about his shadow ministerial brief, amid a mood of optimism within his party and Labour riding high in the polls.

But Norris also has a unique personal story to tell. “At age 11 I passed an exam to get into one of the best schools in the country,” he tells Spotlight. This is the privileged education at Manchester Grammar School, an institution founded during the reign of Henry VIII, which came back to haunt him in Crewe and Nantwich. “It was on a free place,” he hastens to add, keen to emphasise that he’s no toff, after all. “My story is a social mobility story.”

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[See also: Who’s afraid of a Lib-Lab coalition?]

Norris retains a soft south Manchester accent, the kind that would probably be seen as “authentic” in Westminster, but “posh” in Hulme. There’s a slightly laddish quality about him. A former colleague tells me he “likes a pint”, and his personal website says he’s a keen Manchester City fan. “I wouldn’t change a thing [about my schooling],” he insists. “But there’s an injustice in the sense that the opportunity was there for me, while there are a lot of children, both then and today, with similar socio-economic challenges, who should be getting those opportunities as well but they don’t.” That is one of his “motivating factors” politically, he says.

The shadow minister’s background is highly unusual. Norris was one of the “first test tube babies”, as he calls it, born through IVF to two Mancunian publicans. His father died when he was two years old, leaving his mother to raise him alone. “All of us, in our country, have a love affair with the NHS and we all have a story,” he says. “Mine is that my dad had cancer on and off, to different degrees, for six years. And without the incredible care of the NHS, obviously I wouldn’t be here at all.”

His journey into politics began at university in Nottingham, where he studied politics. Norris was “more interested in politics on the street and knocking on people’s doors though” – an expected pastime for anyone aspiring to elected office. Norris was duly chosen to represent Basford ward on Nottingham City Council in 2011. He served for six years while working as a Unison organiser, before entering parliament in 2017.

Time in local government gave Norris a familiarity with many of the issues at stake in his current remit. In the 2020 Labour leadership election, Norris backed Lisa Nandy, now his boss in the shadow cabinet. Earlier this year, the shadow levelling up secretary made a speech promising a Take Back Control Act, “to flip the presumption of power from Whitehall to the town hall”. The law, according to Labour, would stimulate a kind of devo-max arms race for the English regions, allowing local leaders to “request anything that has already been devolved to another area of a similar scale”.

“The concept at the root of levelling up is right,” Norris says. Both the main parties, at least on a rhetorical level, are committed to it. But he thinks Labour has a stronger claim to being the true heir of aspirant regional equity than the Conservative government. “Sometimes, we talk about it as if they’ve invented it in the last three years, but actually, it’s in our DNA.” That doesn’t mean he can commit to keeping the levelling up departmental name, however – “the key thing for me is not the name on the headed notepaper”, he says. We may yet have a new regional policy buzzword from an incoming Labour government.

[See also: Dehenna Davison on devolution: “We have instigated the greatest transfer of power in living memory”]

“The problem with levelling up is in the execution,” he continues. “Small beauty parades of funding won’t cut it when you’re trying to deal with decades-old problems to decades-old problems – post-industrial challenges, globalisation challenges – with just a small pot of money that needs to be spent within 18 months. That’s not meaningful policy. It’s trying to create the illusion of action rather than action itself.”

So what would Labour do differently?

The party has gone big on its devolution promises. But if Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to Britain’s regions was about doling out more money, Keir Starmer’s has focused on distributing more powers. “We’re not in a position at this point to be making huge spending commitments,” Norris tells me (he will repeat this on several occasions in our interview) – I’ll have to “wait until the manifesto”.

As a former councillor himself, all too aware of the budgetary constraints faced by local authorities, would Norris and Labour commit to restoring council funding to pre-austerity levels? “We’re not going to be making those financial commitments yet,” he says, again, “we have to see where the books are.”

The opposition has made some very large spending commitments, however, despite the noises about a lack of policy. HS2 will be “fully” delivered, and Northern Powerhouse Rail will be built, connecting Liverpool to Hull via Manchester and Leeds with high-speed track. New rail lines are often talked about as a centre-piece of levelling up, but these investment plans run into the hundreds of billions of pounds and have been downgraded by the government. The eastern leg of HS2, once intended to run to Leeds, was scrapped.

“We keep putting off major decisions like HS2 that would transform capacity,” Norris says. The Take Back Control Act will start to devolve more power over transport services to local and regional bodies, he explains. That process has already begun under the Conservatives, with the Bus Services Act allowing local transport authorities to establish their own publicly controlled franchising operations. But most places lack the cash to establish Transport for London-style institutions and networks, even if they theoretically have the powers to do so.

On top of the big-money transport commitments, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has also said £28bn will be spent annually on the climate crisis. What’s more, business rates are set to be abolished entirely, so what will they be replaced with, and will these new taxes be locally retained? “I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for the manifesto on that,” Norris replies yet again.

Implementing these programmes alone, without major borrowing or commitments on tax rises, will be a stretch. And this is before we even begin to consider further waves of investment in the regions, to rescue councils from the brink of insolvency, for example, or to bring regional subsidies per-head for transport or the arts to London levels. “That’s not the view we’ve taken,” he responds. “What you’ll get from us is a fully costed manifesto.”

Gordon Brown’s Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future, published late last year, was embraced by the Labour leadership, and promised decentralising powers out to local and combined authorities. “Those are the kind of structural inputs that are hugely important,” says Norris.

And yet this is an agenda also being trumpeted on the Conservative benches, and it’s of little comfort to be given more powers if you’re not in a financial position to exercise them. It was the former chancellor George Osborne who created the metro mayors, and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has accepted the need for more fiscal and policy powers to be devolved. The last Budget announced “trailblazer” deals for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, providing for more control over skills and other policy areas, as well as longer-term funding settlements that will obviate the need for competitive bidding processes on dozens of separate funding pots.

The difference with Labour’s approach, then, is not one of principle but of degree: “We think we should go much further,” says Norris. “We want that for everybody.”

Our latest poll shows that 86 per cent of councillors think the government is guilty of a Whitehall-knows-best mindset. But would the opposite – a culture of devolution-by-default – automatically result in better outcomes? Labour-run Liverpool City Council is currently being supervised by government-appointed commissioners after its mayor was arrested for alleged conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. Labour-run Croydon declared bankruptcy in 2020 after a string of property investments turned sour. “If areas don’t feel they’re ready yet to take more powers on, then that is a point of judgement for them,” Norris says.

Towards the end of our talk, I’ve pushed a little too much, trying to coax out spending commitments that Norris isn’t in a position to make. “Be gentle with me,” he jokes. But ultimately, it’s voters in seats like Crewe and Nantwich who will decide his and Labour’s fate.

[See also: The shattered Tory bloc and the end of levelling up]

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight policy supplement on regional development. To read the full supplement click here.

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