Voices: Levelling up was the only thing protecting the north of England – now it’s in limbo

·3-min read
There’s an awful lot riding on Starmer and Nandy really upping their game (Getty Images)
There’s an awful lot riding on Starmer and Nandy really upping their game (Getty Images)

The next fortnight is going to be hugely important for the future of the north of England.

With Boris Johnson on the rocks, and the very real possibility that he will lose two deeply embarrassing by-elections in a couple of weeks, the whole idea of the government focusing its energy on “levelling up” is on life support. It may have published its levelling-up white paper only a few months ago, but there are two very likely scenarios that could see Tory attention quickly drift away.

First: the Tories lose both Wakefield and Tiverton, but Johnson somehow clings on to his job. While the Conservatives would be sad to lose a red-wall seat with a small majority in the north, the vast number of backbench shire MPs with majorities previously thought impregnable will panic. They would quickly force No 10 to pivot to the south and concentrate on tax cuts and firing civil servants.

Second: the Tories lose both Wakefield and Tiverton and Johnson is quicky handed his P45. In this eventuality, as my colleague James Frayne wrote earlier this week, it is very hard to see a candidate to replace him who has the skillset or charisma to hold the red wall. In this scenario you can imagine a Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt administration quickly reverting to the old Cameroonian approach of (just) winning elections by maximising success in the south and the affluent cities.

Both possibilities could see levelling up being dropped down a policy hole – and both should present a very real opportunity for Labour to win back the 70 or so seats that cost them the 2019 election.

But are Kier Starmer and his shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy capable of stepping up? Are they capable of generating the kind of energy and enthusiasm that could see them sweep back through the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Teesside and County Durham? Or will northern working class voters just reject all politicians as a bad lot and turn away from mainstream politics altogether?

In truth, the jury is still out. Polling in recent days suggests a cavalcade of northern constituencies turning red at the next general election. However, this kind of research only tells you half the story, and, as I have written before, Kier Starmer still does not generate much real excitement in key voters. I have not yet had the chance to ask focus groups about Nandy, but I feel confident that neither she, nor her currently vague levelling-up policies, have set many northern pulses racing.

This is a huge challenge for the Labour leadership. Between now and when we next go to the polls (probably in 2024), they badly need to put some meat on the bone as to how they will reverse years of post-industrial decline in the party’s former heartlands.

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But Labour must get people to believe that it believes in the north again: that Labour really will help places such as Middlesbrough, Doncaster and Ashington thrive again, and that it can stoke proper enthusiasm. Because as much as voters rather enjoyed throwing their lot in with Boris, the 2019 landslide was just as much about a rejection of years and years of Labour as it was an adoption of Conservative values.

If their enormous political problems do force the Tories to turn their attention away from the north, as seems likely, then we must hope Starmer and Nandy are ready to take advantage.

If not, the north won’t just be left to its economic purgatory, it could be about to get a lot worse. History tells us that a combination of rocketing inflation and disengaged and angry voters makes for a very nasty political cocktail indeed.

There’s an awful lot riding on Starmer and Nandy really upping their game.

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