Conservative failure has gifted Levelling up to Labour
Labour Together's editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour's Covenant. As summer recess approaches and with Boris Johnson gone, in this editorial we take stock of Labour's political situation.
Boris Johnson has gone. Labour overinvested its opposition in moral attacks on his character, at the expense of defining its own politics. Now it must set out its alternative to this government. It has a small poll lead, but it should be far more significant at this point in the electoral cycle with a government that’s been in a constant state of free fall. Labour is ‘back on the pitch’, but it has yet to instil enthusiasm in the voters. The national mood is indifference to both major parties. Nothing is a better guage of this malaise than levelling up.
Levelling up was the promise of a new fairer economic model for the country. In Wales and England majorities voted to leave the EU for a sea change in who the economy worked for and how the UK was governed. The desire for independence in Scotland has also been for a better kind of economy that breaks with the liberal market orthodoxies of Westminster. People who had given up on democracy voted for hope. Six years on, the UK's economic model of growth, already failing inside the EU, simply no longer functions in the interests of the majority of working people. And yet Westminster is unable to act, immobilised by political inertia.
Levelling up is a complex systems problem. There is no quick fix, no attractive retail offer that promises an immediate electoral return. It aims to rebalance, update and repair the national economy so that it works for the great majority of people and in the interests of a shared national prosperity spread across all regions of the United Kingdom. To achieve this and to build new industries from the ground up requires a model of government and an approach to governance capable of managing complexity and investing for the long term.
This means breaking with the top down and technocratic (sometimes grandiose) approach to policy making that has too frequently ended in expensive failure. Instead levelling up needs a democratic approach to policy making in which the combined forces of the public sector, private sector, trade unions, civil society and local community, work together in reciprocal agreement and incremental action for the common good.
This revolutionary shift in the approach to government and governance cannot simply be achieved by fiat. It first requires an organising narrative within a political leadership which provides a clear sense of strategic purpose and a road map out of the old technocratic over-centralised order and into a new democratic settlement. This will enable a national leadership to assemble a coalition of political actors and illustrative policies and practices capable of shifting the total complex system toward a dynamic of subsidiarity, democracy and reciprocity. The point is that central government cannot enact levelling up, it has to facilitate multiple actors to do so over generations. Above all things, levelling up is about generating devolved leadership for brokering and convening relationships and partnerships across society and the economy.
The Conservatives responded to political realignment with their White Paper on Levelling Up. Despite a sophisticated analysis of the UKs regional disparities in wealth, income and opportunities, the party has struggled with implementation. Read Chapter 3 of the White Paper. There is a bewildering number of plans, strategies, targets, initiatives, funds and visions without any sense of how this complexity will be guided and sustained in government. Boris Johnson lacked the attention span to implement it, but with him gone there appears to be little interest in bringing levelling up under a national strategic leadership. The problem for the Tories is the absence of policy and a guiding political philosophy. Hence the likelihood of the restoration of a worn out market liberalism.
Conservative failure has gifted levelling up to Labour. Levelling up is not a policy option to occupy half a page of a manifesto jostling with other retail offers. It should be Labour’s national mission, heart and soul, across the UK: the reconstruction of the national economy, the rebalancing of resources, wealth and political power across the regions and within them, the opportunity for all citizens to fulfil their potential and lead a healthy, good life. It is bread and butter politics about people, money, land and power. It covers all the significant briefs of the shadow cabinet – health, business, education, culture, and nature, as well as geopolitics. Reconstructing the national economy and levelling up offers Labour its narrative of national renewal and a framework for developing its policy programme aimed directly at the voters it needs to win back.
For guidance, Labour has its own history of institution and nation building in the years after the Second World War. And yet Labour hesitates. A Labour plan is mentioned, but there is no obvious substance yet. A number of narratives emerge and as quickly disappear. Shadow ministers announce initiatives and policies with no collective strategic aim. The absence of a larger defining project, and the lack of a story about the country, leaves the party still struggling to enthuse voters.
Certain hard truths cannot be avoided. Moving on from Jeremy Corbyn restored the party to electoral credibility. Rooting out anti-semitism has been a considerable achievement. But this process of detoxification did not spontaneously release a new political common ground brimming with ideas. Keir Starmer inherited a politics that has run out of energy. It survives on a political language drained of meaning. It has suffered a decade of intellectual neglect and offers little in the way of new analysis and thinking. Like the Conservatives the Labour Party is running on empty. In this new historical period it needs a radical revision of some of its foundational positions, not least its political economy.
Detoxifying the party is only the first of three steps to election victory. Next Labour must create a plan for the reconstruction of the national economy underpinned by a new model of economic growth. And third it must animate this with a story of national renewal. Step one alone promises no Labour victory. Without the necessary heavy lifting of political revision a Labour government will quickly flounder. There can be no avoiding the hard work of creating a political narrative and building around it a coherent policy programme. There are some who now prioritise the cost of living crisis and inflation over levelling up. But Labour must prioritise both macroeconomic policy and developmental economics incorporated into a new model of economic growth and social renewal, not one or the other.
Now is the time to undertake this work. Between now and his conference speech in the Autumn, the party’s leader can set out the first iterations of his narrative and the first outlines of a plan for the reconstruction of the national economy. There is no completed script that can be conjured up on demand by a few polls and focus groups. It is a collective process of analysis, learning, altering and developing, drawing in the necessary expertise, aligning with senior colleagues, to create a shared vision of Labour’s plans for the country. This is the political ballast that enables a party to steer its own course in government.
In a recent review essay in the New Statesman, the philosopher John Gray wrote, ‘Brexit was an invitation to fashion a new political economy for this country, which the British political class declined’. Brexit has irretrievably changed the politics of our country. Parties that fail to recognise this truth will fail. Labour now has an extraordinary opportunity to seize the initiative and develop its own narrative of levelling up and national reconstruction and so build a national coalition for electoral victory. In 1945 it defined the political life of Britain for decades. Labour can do so again. History will be a harsh judge of such a missed opportunity.