David Skelton is the author of The New Snobbery. Dr David Jeffrey is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool and Chair of the City of Liverpool Conservatives.
The 2019 election looked like a historic realignment. It was made possible with the support of millions of first-time Conservative voters in dozens of first-time Tory seats across the North and the Midlands. There was a swing of over eight per cent to the Conservatives in the North East and almost seven per cent in the West Midlands, as once rock-solid Labour seats like Blyth Valley, Sedgefield and Bolsover turned blue.
The mandate provided in 2019 was based on an emphatic and clear promise: the Government would prioritise reversing decades of economic decline in parts of the country that had long been ignored by both parties. The Prime Minister may now be about to change, but our parliamentary system means that the mandate remains. Whoever wins the leadership election will inherit a majority delivered on the promise of levelling up: they should ensure that the promise becomes a reality.
Continuing to deliver on levelling up matters for both political and economic reasons. The only realistic route to victory in the next election is through the electoral coalition that delivered the biggest Tory majority for four decades. Turning our back on the central pillar of that election success would be political madness.
The economic reason is even more compelling. Voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ made clear in both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election that they were sick of being ignored by Conservative politicians and taken for granted by their Labour MPs. The economic and social issues that drove this disenchantment remain in place: decades of neglect were never going to be turned around in two or three years.
Gross Value Added per head in the North is still around 25 per cent lower than in the South East. Heath and educational inequalities continue to be stark and the North and Midlands are still not getting the share of transport infrastructure that they need to prosper. “Left-behind” towns are at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis.
Given the centrality of levelling up to winning in 2019, you would have hoped that delivering it would have been a central theme of this leadership election. Sadly, it has barely registered so far in a campaign that, at times, seems to have been more obsessed with rehashing different versions of Thatcherism.
To paraphrase Ralf Dahrendorf on the SDP, we run the risk of promising a “better yesterday”. We need a policy programme that is going to tackle regional inequalities and the problems of 2022, rather than harking back to a romanticised version of the past.
Both candidates have shown that they recognise the importance of the issue. And it should be applauded that they have both signed up to the Northern Research Group’s Northern Agenda. Liz Truss, educated in a Leeds comprehensive during the worst wave of deindustrialisation, clearly instinctively understands the importance of levelling ip. Her commitment to deliver Northern Powerhouse rail in full has to be welcomed, but untargeted tax cuts alone will not help the most deprived areas in our country. As a Northern MP, Rishi Sunak also presented himself as a strong supporter of levelling up when he was Chancellor.
However, recent suggestions that there should be a funding shift from “deprived urban areas” show a misunderstanding of what levelling up should be about. It is not robbing Peter from the South East to pay Paul in the Red Wall, nor is it arguing that there is no poverty south of Watford.
It is instead a recognition that there are deep-rooted structural issues across significant parts of the North and Midlands, which will need government involvement to address – just like Thatcher’s government did with the London dockland programme, a global success made possible by the state working with the private sector. Getting things done – what’s more Thatcherite than that?
We need to hear more about how the new Prime Minister might continue to Level Up. Individual policy ideas such as freeports might be welcome and important, but they don’t amount to transformational programmes to deliver sustained regional growth.
A Cabinet-level Minister for the North should be appointed to oversee an ambitious programme for growth. A real focus should remain on the creation of good, skilled, well-paid jobs in manufacturing and in the professions, so that people don’t have to leave their hometown to get on. A programme for the North should also focus on delivering world standard technical education, to ensure that people in the North have the skills to fill those jobs, and to be at the forefront of the next wave of the Industrial Revolution. And a programme for the North should focus on delivering transport infrastructure.
Further devolution clearly needs to be at the heart of this. Devolution has already created important regional champions with national profile, such as Andy Street and Ben Houchen, and has also had the side-effect of moderating Labour Mayors when faced with real power and responsibility, such as Steve Rotheram and Jamie Driscoll. Local politicians, backed up with real powers and real budgets, are best placed to remove the barriers to economic growth in their area.
Levelling Up was at the core of a hugely popular political programme in 2019 and it must be at the core of the programme of the next Prime Minister. It’s essential for the future of the country that tackling regional inequalities remains a real priority. It’s essential for the future of our tax base that the whole country performs as well as London does. And it’s essential for the political fortunes of the Conservative Party that Levelling Up continues to be a defining part of modern Conservatism.