In Boris Johnson’s first speech after the 2019 election, the victorious prime minister delivered a message to the first-time Conservative voters who had just helped him deliver the largest Tory majority since the 1980s. “You may only have lent us your vote, you may not see yourself as a natural Tory,” he told a crowd of supporters, leaning over a lectern emblazoned with “the people’s government”. But “I am humbled that you have put your trust in me… I will make it my mission to work night and day, to work flat-out to prove you right in voting for me.”
Such was the size of the Conservative majority that Labour’s chances of changing public opinion in one parliamentary term looked slim. Eighteen months later, in 2021, even after Covid-19 lockdowns and trips to Barnard Castle, an exclusive New Statesman Spotlight poll of local councillors found that 70 per cent still believed the Conservatives would win the next election. Only around a fifth of councillors thought Labour would lead the next government.
Today those numbers have been inverted. Last month New Statesman Spotlight conducted another nationwide survey of English local government ahead of its 4 May elections. We contacted thousands of councillors from more than 300 local authorities, and received 671 responses. Today, 42 per cent of Labour councillors report that support for the party in their area has increased a lot since 2019, and 44 per cent say it has increased a little. This is a mixed picture, but compared with the Conservatives (4 per cent say a lot, 9 per cent say a little), the mood among the opposition is positive. Similarly, 84 per cent of all councillors predict that Labour will lead the next government, with only 9 per cent making the same judgement of the Conservatives.
It’s little wonder that confidence in the governing party is waning. More than three years on from the 2019 election, the UK is on to its third prime minister – and the second without a national electoral mandate. After partygate, the Christopher Pincher scandal, the “disaster” of Liz Truss’s tenure (as described by 40 per cent of Tory councillors, according to our poll), an unprecedented squeeze on living standards and faltering public services, nerves are bound to be frayed among Conservatives.
But New Statesman Spotlight's polling has also revealed a widespread lack of belief in Westminster’s policy programme among both the Tory grassroots and local government representatives in general. Fifty-eight per cent of Conservative councillors say government policies are having no impact, a negative impact or a very negative impact on their locales. Across respondents from all parties, that figure was 91 per cent.
Smashing the Red Wall was supposed to usher in the beginnings of a new Conservative Party. In his victory speech, Johnson claimed it would be the party “for everyone from Woking to Workington, from Kensington to I'm proud to say Clwyd South, from Surrey Heath to Sedgefield, from Wimbledon to Wolverhampton”. It was to be a new, cross-class alliance of the old, affluent Tory shires and the post-industrial towns. For the first time, the sociological category of C2DEs – manual workers, or the old working class – broke the habit of generations and voted predominantly for the Conservative Party.
The levelling-up project was key to consolidating this realignment. Gone were the days of austerity. Instead, there would be “colossal new investments in infrastructure”, said Johnson, and a reversal of cuts to the police, schools and NHS budgets (although there was no word on restoring local councils’ spending power). Geographical disparities in wealth, productivity, health, and public and private investment would be reduced.
Yet today, more than half (52 per cent) of councillors say commitment to levelling up has decreased since Rishi Sunak entered 10 Downing Street. Sixty-nine per cent of Tory councillors say their area has seen “not seen any tangible benefits” from what was once billed as the government’s flagship agenda on regional equality, while only 35 per cent described the project as “a success”. Across all parties, 84 per cent of councillors said levelling up had brought nothing to their area, while 92 per cent said their authority did not receive adequate funding from central government, including almost two thirds (63 per cent) of Conservatives.
“It is sadly no surprise that councillors on both sides of the political spectrum are losing confidence in the limited progress on the government's promise to level up the country,” says Zoë Billingham, director of the IPPR North think tank. While welcoming progress on the devolution of some policy levers to metro mayors, true levelling up, she adds, would require “fundamental shifts in how wealth, power and opportunity are shared across the country”.
Instead, Treasury orthodoxy, Whitehall’s stubborn, centralising tendencies, and the Conservative Party’s persistent ideological hang-ups have proved too great a set of obstacles to overcome. Rather than wholesale structural change, we’ve seen half-baked, rehashed solutions, already-announced initiatives relaunched, and endless funding pots repackaged into white papers and reports.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) seems to recognise the problems but lacks the tools to solve them. “Not only has levelling up failed to deliver,” says Sarah Longlands, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, “but in many cases it has actually cost local authorities in terms of time and money preparing unsuccessful bids for funding.” DLUHC accepts the drawbacks of the centralised bidding model but progress remedying them is slow.
“Levelling up was never going to happen overnight,” Adam Hawksbee, deputy director of the think tank Onward, tells me. “The important thing for the government to do now is redouble its focus on the agenda.” Tackling antisocial behaviour should be part of the project, he believes, as well as new infrastructure and the renewal of high streets.
But the stagflationary economic period the country is entering has ended any talk of new investment, and following Johnson’s exit the Tories have returned to their fiscally conservative comfort zone. As average real take-home pay shrinks and local services near collapse, the notion of a coming regional renaissance will seem like a cruel joke. Local authorities are being battered by inflation: 22 per cent of polled councillors say it’s unlikely or very unlikely they’ll be able to set a balanced budget and maintain statutory services this year. For many, bankruptcy looms.
There may not be universal enthusiasm for Labour, but the conclusion on both sides of the political aisle is clear: the post-2019 Conservative bloc is under strain.
Local elections are often seen as an indication of which way the political winds are blowing. The polls for more than 8,000 council seats take place on 4 May. Some of our respondents will be celebrating their victories, while others will not retain their seats. The Conservatives’ broken levelling-up pledges won't do the party's councillors any favours at the ballot box.
This article will be published in a “Spotlight” supplement on regional policy, available with the “New Statesman” issue of 5 May.