Lisa Nandy had served for almost two years as the shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, before she was demoted yesterday to a shadow ministerial role for international development. Her replacement, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, inherits a remit that includes some of the most radical policy proposals still harboured by the opposition.
The Labour Party has reneged on commitments to public ownership, multi-billion pound public investment packages, higher taxes on high earners, and big investments in public services, and instead offered structural or regulatory supply-side reforms. In that context, Nandy had become the biggest cheerleader for the remaining big-ticket promises of a shadow front bench which is often accused of lacking ideas. There was an unprecedented programme of English devolution, with big transfers of powers and policy levers to local authorities and elected mayors, and a wholesale reform of the planning system to speed up infrastructure projects and encourage housebuilding, including new towns on green belt land.
The latter amounted to a “yimby” charter, increasing development at speed, and was front-and-centre of the party’s proposals for “growth, growth, growth”, in the words of its leader. Both policy streams would keep civil servants at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities busy for the duration of any parliament. How well the member-elected deputy leader takes up these ideas remains to be seen.
As a working-class northerner, Rayner might seem well-placed to lead on a policy area that is often associated with breaking London and the south-east’s stranglehold over the country’s wealth, investment, and power dynamics. It was also confirmed on Monday that she would act as deputy prime minister in any future Labour government. Her impressive, passionate performances at the dispatch box have often contrasted with Labour leader Keir Starmer’s more clinical, managerial style. Rayner’s debates with the current Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove will surely make for essential viewing for Westminster obsessives.
Jack Shaw, a local government expert, tells Spotlight that making the levelling up purview congruent with the office of the deputy prime minister (should Labour win, of course), “suggests that the party are serious about addressing regional inequalities”.
And yet Nandy’s demotion may seem strange to outsiders. She had been well-received in the devolution policy scene and is a competent media performer. The Wigan MP also had a persuasive narrative and a clear diagnosis of Labour’s long, painful divorce from its traditional working-class voters. What’s more, Rayner’s political differences with the current leader are well-documented: his botched attempt to demote her after the loss of the Hartlepool by-election ended in her instead being shuffled upwards; and her partner, the MP Sam Tarry, lost his shadow transport position last year after breaking orders not to join picket lines.
Politically speaking, Starmer has replaced one standard-bearer of the so-called “soft left” with another, while the rest of his reshuffle has increased the influence of the party’s Blairite right. Despite this, the Bennite stalwart and Momentum founder, Jon Lansman, wrote on Twitter that Rayner’s promotion was “a victory for the left”. The Times reported in June that the deputy leader was billed for the leadership of the “sprawling” levelling up department, echoing the expansive government roles of the “super department” union man John Prescott in the Blair years, which acted as a sop to the party’s old left factions.
The Stockport-born MP for the Greater Manchester seat of Ashton-under-Lyne, Rayner still sits as the lead on the “New Deal for Working People“. She was recently forced to defend that policy against accusations that the proposals would be the latest party promise to face heavy dilution come election time.
With the “New Deal’s” expansion of workplace rights, Rayner now oversees three of the most consequential (and tricky) reforms still proposed by Labour: successfully delivering on devolution will require a reversal of decades of centralising tendencies within the party; successful planning reform will require taking on many rural MPs, not to mention local councils and a host of powerful nimby special interest groups; and successfully expanding rights at work will irk Labour figures who would prefer a more deferential approach to business interests. The new “super department” deputy certainly has her work cut out.