Labour can and must own ‘levelling up’, and define it on its own terms

Yasmin Qureshi
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a mandate to ‘level up’ the UK at the 2019 general election. The Tories claimed that they would invest “prudently and strategically” in order to level up the country, “while strengthening the ties that bind it together”. You would not be decried for mistakenly thinking that the bullishness with which their campaign centred on seats like mine in Bolton South East suggested a 1945 moment: a true change in government direction and policy. As with Labour and Clement Attlee building the welfare state, would Johnson and the Tories really level-up the country?

Bolton South East is the 38th most deprived constituency in the country. This levelling-up ‘policy’ should, in theory, be a good thing. We desperately need support to create good jobs, address regional inequalities and invest in infrastructure. Yet three years on, a recent Bloomberg investigation found that we are lagging on a range of metrics – the government is failing on its grand promises made in 2019. In fact, it is levelling down many areas across the North West.

Bloomberg’s investigation found that, when compared with 2019 levels, Bolton South East is behind on salaries, universal credit, civil service employment, government spending on transportation, life expectancy, foreign direct investment and productivity. In addition, with the worsening cost of living crisis, it is likely these metrics will continue to deteriorate as families in my area feel the strain. It is a similar story in Bolton West and Bolton North East.

Far from being levelled up, the three seats of Bolton are literally being levelled-down. Keir Starmer’s route to No 10 flows through each Bolton seat – and owning ‘levelling up’ will allow us to get into government and send a message to areas like mine: that Labour can be trusted to deliver and make life that much easier for working people, the goal of any government.

First, Labour must champion investment in infrastructure for places like Bolton. The local Conservative Party promised us a tram connecting us directly to Manchester in the run-up to the 2019 election – yet two feasibility studies later there’s no sign of any real movement, let alone a spade in the ground. When we look to Europe, East Asia and beyond, governments of all colours have prioritised infrastructure development to improve connectivity – yet since 2010 the Tory-led government has done the opposite.

Not only did the government cancel Crossrail for the North, but it also cut the new station in Bradford, Britain’s youngest city, and cut the eastern leg of HS2. Labour has a real chance to show what levelling up really means. We should be bold in our vision for the country – ‘green up’ our transport network and move us away from cars and towards more sustainable forms of transport.

In my area, the lack of affordable and reliable transport links means families rely overwhelmingly on cars. Yet with the price of fuel rocketing, the only affordable and realistic option is now becoming unaffordable and unrealistic. The state can take the initiative as it did throughout the pandemic; spurring on private enterprise with public investment to allow business to flourish and public utility to develop as an affordable, reliable, and safe option.

A very basic thing that a Labour government could provide is the autonomy for local authorities and combined administrations to reregulate their transport systems and incorporate them into one model. In Greater Manchester, the Mayor has re-regulated buses and seeks to introduce a fully-integrated transport system by 2030 – that’s trains, buses, active travel, and trams all under one ticketing scheme. This is a fantastic step – but we need central government to support this and expedite it, something any Labour government should be seeking to do.

Moreover, Labour should be championing high streets in towns up and down the country. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is great to see Labour committed to levelling the playing field for bricks-and-mortar businesses with a reorganised taxation system. We should empower local authorities to lead the way in redesigning our public spaces to allow business and hospitality to flourish. We saw the success of this throughout the height of the pandemic and, as we move forward, we should avoid reverting to our previous operating model and instead trust local councils to do the right thing for their area. Whitehall handouts and directives are nowhere near as efficient as councils that have their ears to the ground and understand their local communities.

The government has also promised to level up housing and improve the situation for leaseholders – another broken promise. In Bolton, we have 6,000 people on a social housing waiting list and with Right to Buy we are actually losing more social homes per year than we are gaining – a net loss. We need to repurpose brownfield sites, like the many derelict mills in my constituency, to provide affordable homes for all that are well insulated and carbon neutral where possible. We must continue to support leaseholders as the housing team have been doing with their cladding issues to ensure: firstly, that the inhabitants are safe; and secondly, that they are not left with exorbitant costs at the hands of developers. Those living in The Cube in my constituency would rest easier at night if that were the case.

The pandemic demonstrated the power of the state to mobilise resources and support an active private sector: with the vaccine, working arrangements and proper support to the lowest paid. I fear with the current government we are on a path to ‘revert to type’ and move back to the previous operating model. As in 1945, we have a chance to seize a sea-change moment – a real shift in political thought. It is up to Labour to take it, and define it, as we see a government paralysed by indecision and ridden with incompetence.

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