Labour targets beleaguered Johnson for ditching flagship ‘levelling up’ plans

Lisa Nandy says Labour will be ‘levelling up government’ giving local areas power to chase their ambitions

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 04 June 2022 21:06 BST
Lisa Nandy (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Lisa Nandy (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

Labour is making a bid to snatch leadership on “levelling up” from Boris Johnson, accusing the beleaguered prime minister of ditching flagship promises to revive disadvantaged “Red Wall” communities which he made in the 2019 election campaign.

Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy told The Independent that a weak and “easily distracted” prime minister had used the slogan to win Tories a foothold in former Labour areas in the Midlands and north, only to backslide on his pledges in power in the face of opposition from his own side.

She revealed that Labour will table amendments to the government’s Levelling Up Bill to restore the PM’s abandoned commitments, challenging Tory MPs to vote down their own manifesto pledges when the legislation comes to the Commons on Wednesday.

And she said that, rather than denouncing the failure of levelling up at the next election, Labour will tell voters that a change of government is needed to deliver on the ambitions it represented.

“We will be a levelling up government,” she said. “The country just can’t go on like this.”

She revealed that Labour has been talking to the teams around US president Joe Biden and newly elected Australian PM Anthony Albanese about how to respond to the wave of discontent with political and economic models across the democratic world.

“There was a moment a few years ago where there was the possibility that there might be a political consensus built around the fact that places that within living memory powered this country have for too long been disrespected and discounted and barred from making a contribution to the future of the country,” said the Wigan MP.

“It’s got to change. It will change in the end. The people always win. If the Tories aren’t going to do this – and it’s increasingly clear that they’re not – then Labour will.”

Speaking as Mr Johnson comes under continuing Tory pressure over Partygate and the cost of living crisis following last month’s U-turn on a windfall tax, Ms Nandy said that the PM’s weakness in the face of his own party had fatally undermined his levelling up agenda.

Despite the efforts of communities secretary Michael Gove to keep the levelling up concept alive, she said it was “pretty clear it has been comprehensively killed off in government”.

“We’ve got a Levelling Up Bill that doesn’t have any levelling up in it, that has 12 ‘levelling up missions’ which the bill allows the government to change if it can’t achieve them,” she said.

“Gove has banged up against Treasury orthodoxy that says that London and the southeast is the engine of growth and other regions, at best, are in a state of sort of managed decline.

“And he has banged up against the strong strand of thinking in the Thatcherite wing of the Tory party that the way that you boost productivity is to cut jobs out of the workforce and sweat the remaining workers harder. So rights, wages, security, planning, a strategic approach to the economy, become the enemy of productivity.

“Gove has lost that argument in government. The moment when No 10 decided that they were backing the Treasury, I think that’s the moment that levelling up was decisively killed off in government .”

Johnson had initially been excited by the prospect of major infrastructure projects such as railways and bridges, but lacked the determination to overcome resistance from the Treasury and Tory MPs, she said.

“He is easily distracted by big shiny things, but when it comes to the hard graft of investing in people and in places in order to help them build, he’s got no interest whatsoever,” said Ms Nandy.

“He used levelling up to win the last election, but his next challenge is to shore his position up with his own backbenchers.

“It’s become victim of Johnson’s decision to take the route of trying to win the next election by pursuing a very rigidly traditional conservative agenda with red meat for his back benches, and an unhealthy dollop of culture wars.

“The good news is, it hasn’t been killed off in the country. People will not put up with this any more.”

Recent research by Bloomberg indicated that 86 per cent of the Red Wall seats won from Labour in the election had fallen further behind London and the southeast economically since 2019.

Ms Nandy said that Labour amendments to the bill would attempt to restore the “radical devolution of power” promised by the prime minister when he first floated his levelling up proposals.

Councils could be empowered to run bus services and skills training, to levy tourism taxes to fund local regeneration, to back community-led housing projects and take on rogue landlords. Decision-making could be devolved in all parts of the country, rather than just those approved by Mr Gove and chancellor Rishi Sunak, she said.

“Every single Tory MP that put ‘I’m going to support the regeneration of our town centre’ on their election leaflet ought to be backing the amendments that we’re proposing,” she said. “These things were absolutely central to the last general election and the promises that Boris Johnson made.

“These Red Wall MPs may only have a few years to make a difference. And if they really want to make a difference to their communities, here’s a chance to do it.”

Ms Nandy said that, rather than relocate a relatively small number of Whitehall jobs out of London, as Johnson has done, Labour’s approach to levelling up would involve more power for local communities to take their own decisions on regeneration.

She pointed to Birmingham, where a Labour-run council gave land to a community association to build and renovate homes, and Grimsby, where the Regional Development Agency – abolished by David Cameron – drove early investment in offshore wind.

“You can go to Grimsby and from the East Marsh estate – the most deprived estate in the country – you can see the offshore wind turbines of an industry that is powering the world, but you can’t actually get from the estate to the docks for lack of a functioning bus network,” she said.

“We need to tilt the system back in favour of those who have a long-term stake in the outcome of those communities because that’s how you get better decisions.”

And she added: “The anger that we’ve seen expressed through the ballot box in various ways in recent years hasn’t been born out of despair or hatred, it’s been born out of ambition. People are far more ambitious for themselves, their families, their communities and their country than the politicians that they’ve had.

“They need to see that the same level of ambition from the Labour Party.

“Come the next election, we won’t be trailing around in the north of England and saying the Tories haven’t kept their promises.

“We will be parking our tanks firmly on the Tories’ lawn, walking back into Burnley and Grimsby and Wigan and Barnsley and Great Yarmouth and saying to people: ‘This is how it could be different. If you vote Labour, our commitment to you is that we’ll realise the level of ambition that you have for your own community.’”

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