Now is the time for Labour to embrace levelling up and pave the way for a better alternative

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Last week’s budget confirmed the Conservatives have their tanks firmly parked on Labour’s lawn. Their next general election strategy will be to present themselves as the party that invests in towns and puts money in the pockets of voters in Red Wall seats. They will claim to be the party of working people, of regenerating high streets, and most boldly of all, of investing in public services.

None of this is true of course – the Tories have spent a decade failing to invest in towns and infrastructure and cutting public services – but that doesn’t matter. It presents a conundrum about how Labour should respond to things that, most voters would say, looks like exactly the kinds of things Labour would do.  

This conundrum is exacerbated by the electoral geography of the next general election. As one recent report found, to deprive the Tories of a majority, Labour must simultaneously win very different kinds of seats: seats with the highest and the lowest percentage of graduates and home owners, seats in Wales, the Red Wall and Scotland.

What these seats share is that most are not adjacent to major cities and are comprised of small towns and villages that have been experiencing relative decline. This means there are few questions that will define this Parliament more than how Labour responds to the levelling up agenda.

Levelling up will never work because the Tories do not fund local government properly

When we speak to voters in the Red Wall, in towns like Bury, Middleton, Heywood, or Haslingden, most are enthusiastic about the levelling up agenda. They associate it with investment in infrastructure and public services, and the regeneration of high streets and public spaces whose decline has made it harder to feel proud of the towns in which they live. As the former Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, and a local Labour organiser and activist, we support all those things. 

The budget last week was an opportunity for Labour to start talking about levelling up just as much as the Tories, backing every viable investment project we can find and emphasising how important it is they succeed. Labour should make levelling up in small towns across the country, and especially in the Red Wall, the defining test of this government.

Promising voters in coastal villages in North Wales or small towns in the North East that they will be able to do any job they want in the place they grow up is disingenuous and dishonest. We support a place-based approach to investment, but we must also recognise that geographic mobility actually tends to reduce economic inequality.

People are already beginning to feel the effects of choices the Tories have made in the past few weeks. Just as people face the biggest tax burden since the Second World War, alongside rising food and gas prices that will push millions into fuel poverty, the government has stuck to its cruel and unnecessary £20 cut to Universal Credit. The Conservatives promised investment and growth, instead they consistently vote to make thousands of families poorer.

Above all, levelling up will never work because the Tories do not fund local government properly. Over the last decade, the Tories have forced Rochdale Council to make almost £200m in cuts and the Council now spends a quarter less than it did in 2010. Because councils in more deprived areas cannot use council tax and business rates to make up funding shortfalls, they have been forced to slash council-led infrastructure and housing projects and social care.  

Labour cannot sit back and wait for the Tories to fail. Instead, we must develop a better, radical alternative, supported by a new macroeconomic framework and a plan for huge investment in physical and social infrastructure that would address the climate emergency and provide working families the security they need. 

To win back marginal seats like Heywood and Middleton, Labour must set the foundations now to make the Tories’ failure to deliver this the defining story of the next election. We need to show that Conservatives will never provide the investment and support to reduce inequalities across the regions, nations, and citizens of this country. That is not who they are. 

Liz McInnes is the former Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton and Josh Simons is the Director of People’s Action and Labour activist in Greater Manchester.

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