Britain isn’t working. We have the most geographically unequal economy in Europe bar Romania and Poland. Many of our towns and villages have been written off by their government altogether. The message to their young people is if you want to get on, you have to get out. A country whose economy is barely firing on any cylinders cannot succeed.
This sense that the country is falling apart is felt everywhere. In one of the most centralised countries in the world, even the winners are losing. London has the highest disposable income in the country but once housing costs are taken into account people are worse off than most parts of the UK. Politics must rise to this moment or become irrelevant.
In response, the Tory government has all but abandoned the idea of levelling up. Michael Gove has been defeated by a Treasury that only sees London and the southeast as having a contribution to make to Britain’s future. Defeated by a Tory orthodoxy that sees rights, job security and decent wages as the enemy of productivity. So he has moved his sights to appeasing Tory rebels who fear they will lose their seats if the government doesn’t shift its approach to planning. This is the vacuum into which Labour will step.
We have dealt with challenges on this scale before. After 1945, the Attlee government stepped forward to build decent secure public housing, founded the NHS and rebuilt from the ashes of war. In the 1970s, the Wilson government recognised the challenge of a changed society, where the system refused to acknowledge or accommodate the ambitions of women, working class families and immigrants, responding with landmark legislation like the Equal Pay Act, the Race Relations Act and comprehensive education. In 1997, Labour rebuilt our crumbling NHS and schools, boosted dignity and living standards with the minimum wage, and put the looming climate crisis squarely on the global agenda.
This time it is different. We face the twin challenges of building a country that fires on all cylinders, in which all of us have a stake and a contribution, and the climate emergency which is shaking the ground beneath our feet. Neither of these challenges can be solved from the centre. It will take a nation, using all our assets, the creativity and capacity of our people in every region of the UK.
The government cannot continue to dictate from the centre out, with only small offers of powers and resources that communities are made to compete for. If they do, it will deepen geographical inequalities within the UK, stall our recovery from Covid and fuel the discontent that’s seen the rise of movements like the gilets jaune and politicians Marine Le Pen in France.
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The solution required must be nothing less than tilting the balance of power back in favour of the people who have a stake in the outcome and skin in the game. We have to ensure every area has a local growth plan and the powers to deliver on it – whether it’s control over buses so that they connect people to apprenticeships and jobs, friends and family, powers over their own finances, or delivering on the need for capital investment that builds housing and clean energy schemes that generate revenue.
We need to do this not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only thing to do. To smash up a century of centralisation and restore power to people who can use it to rebuild their parks, libraries, high streets and youth clubs that make up the social fabric of a place.
John F Kennedy once said “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy but because it is hard”. That should be the mantra of all of us who strive to make change. We need to turn upside down the democratic settlement of the last century so we can rise to the challenge of our age and rebuild this country from the ground up the only way that counts – together.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan, and shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing, communities and local government