'Labour should welcome the thrust of the levelling up agenda but play on Keir’s biggest strength: that unlike Johnson, he is seen as competent, capable, and professional'.
Josh Simons is Director of the Civic Power Fund
This budget sharpened the two schools of thought about how Labour should respond to the “levelling up” agenda.
One response is to show that levelling up is simply empty rhetoric by picking apart specific proposals. For instance, it is disingenuous and dishonest to promise voters in rural coastal villages in North Wales or small towns in the North East they will be able to do any job they want in the town they grew up in. While we need a place-based approach to investment, geographic mobility is inevitable and actually tends to reduce economic inequality. On this view, Labour should rebut Johnson’s specific promises one by one, exposing them for the bluff and bluster they are.
Others think Labour should welcome the levelling up agenda, but cast doubt on whether this government can deliver it. On this view, there’s little to gain politically from being seen as naysayers who nit-pick every government proposal. Instead Labour should welcome the thrust of the levelling up agenda but play on Keir’s biggest strength: that unlike Johnson, he is seen as competent, capable, and professional.
Both views are right, but they need to be sequenced over the course of this Parliament.
My experience speaking to voters in ‘Red Wall’ seats is that most people are enthusiastic about levelling up. They are fed up with persistent regional inequalities, the underfunding of transport and public services, and are willing to gamble on a Tory government apparently impatient for change.
Labour should welcome the levelling up agenda to show that we too recognise the scale of what needs to be done. In fact, Labour should talk about levelling up just as much as the Tories, supporting every viable housing, transport, and decarbonisation project across the country and hammering home how important it is that they succeed. Labour should make levelling up the Red Wall the test of this government.
Then Labour will be ready when the government fails.
Already, voters here are starting to notice that not only has little has changed, it’s getting worse. This government has made more choices in the budget that will tip millions of families into poverty. Just as people face the biggest tax burden since the Second World War, rising food and gas prices, the government has stuck to its cruel and unnecessary £20 cut to Universal Credit. The new Tory MP, Chris Clarkson promised Heywood and Middleton he would bring investment and growth, but instead, he has voted to make 12,000 families poorer.
And things will keep getting worse because Tories never fund local government properly. Over the last decade, successive Tory governments have forced Rochdale Council to make almost £200m in cuts and the Council now spends a quarter less than it did in 2010. Councils in more deprived areas cannot use council tax and business rates to make up funding shortfalls, and as a result, they have been forced to gut council-led infrastructure and housing projects and the provision of social care.
Making levelling up the test doesn’t mean Labour can just sit back and wait for the Tories to fail. Labour must beaver away to develop a better, radical alternative: a new macroeconomic framework focused on growth, alongside a plan for physical and social infrastructure that would address the climate emergency and provide working families with the security they need.
But the aftermath of this budget is an opportunity to define levelling up the red wall as the test of this government. To win back marginal seats like Heywood and Middleton, Labour must make a failure to deliver this the defining story of this government. Because the Tories will never provide the investment and support needed to reduce inequalities across the regions, nations, and citizens of this country. That is not who they are.
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