Three years before their election victory, a team of New Labour strategists set out across the Atlantic. Arriving in America, they sought lessons from Bill Clinton’s success in 1992. This was the first meeting in a course of events that led Labour and the Democratic Party to share a successful ideology dubbed the ‘Third Way’.
After experiencing a disappointing set of local election results, Kier Starmer could do with a trip to America. Both Labour and the Democrats lost their traditional heartlands; but whereas the latter is now in power, Labour continue to fail. Joe Biden won back America’s rust belt without losing the left of the party. On Thursday, Labour lost metropolitan voters to the Greens at the same time as seeing the Conservatives dig deeper into red wall areas, and even extending their reach further across northern England.
The reason for this difference is that Joe Biden moved the Democratic Party onto Trump’s terrain. Rather than accepting the Republicans held a monopoly over the issue of investment in America’s Rust Belt and over the values these voters wanted, Biden fought to own the issue. In the middle of the campaign he made a striking statement. In the state of Michigan, lost by the Democrats in 2016, Biden stood from a podium that read ‘Made in America’, and promised a series of taxes on foreign investment to help rebuild decimated rust-belt industries. This was a speech that could have been made by Donald Trump, but for two key differences: it was more radical than what the Government had offered and was based on a concrete plan.
This is exactly how Kier Starmer needs to respond on the issue of ‘levelling up’. The reason for Conservative victories in Hartlepool, Rotherham, and Durham, was because of traditional politics. Voters saw that the Tories were already delivering on their promises of investment in these forgotten towns, and they wanted more. The national focus after Rishi Sunak’s budget last March, was on historically high tax rises. Yet to voters in these areas there was a more significant story.
On the front page of regional newspapers, were a plethora of headlines that announced much needed investment. The Northern Echo hailed the decision to build a Treasury office in Darlington as a ‘Our region reborn as a powerhouse’. The Yorkshire post spoke of Sunak banking on Yorkshire ‘to lead the nation out of crisis’, and The Grimsby/Scunthorpe Telegraph wrote ‘the good news keeps on coming’, reporting £100m of investment for High Street and renewable energy projects.
Despite this flurry of initial announcements and yet more promised by the Prime Minister last weekend, there are limitations to Johnson’s ambition of levelling up. The Chancellor is more concerned than others in government about the deficit following the pandemic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that as a result of Sunak’s ambitions to stabilise government debt, there are the ‘chances of £17billion of spending cuts’. This includes the plan to cut £4billion per year from public service spending after 2021; likely to be felt in local government because of already fixed budgets elsewhere.
These fiscal restraints offer an opportunity for Labour to advocate a more ambitious and radical ‘levelling-up agenda’. Already Northern leaders are expressing dismay at the budget cuts to key transport initiatives. In January the Government outlined plans to cut Transport for North’s core funding from £10million to £6m and provide no money for the funding of implementing contactless payment systems. The board’s Finance Director Iain Craven said, ‘It falls substantially short of what we outlined the North would need’.
These budget cuts will undermine the promises of long-term investment made by the Government. Whilst voters will be pleased to see free ports and renewable energy projects being planned, these cannot be constructed quickly. In that time voters are likely to see further problems in their daily lived experience. Being asked to pay more taxes, at the same time as seeing local services become more difficult to rely upon.
This means Labour need to do exactly what Joe Biden did in his 2020 election victory, offering a clearer and more radical plan for levelling-up. Recently the party has spent more time attacking the very concept of investment than its actual delivery. Following the budget, the Daily Mirror/Guardian ran articles decrying investment as ‘pork-barrel’ politics, complaining that only places which voted Tory received the money. Ask any voter, and that sounds a pretty good reason for voting Conservative.
In Andy Burnham’s victory speech there was an early hint of the strategy which I propose. He did not attack investment but outlined his own meaning of levelling up. The Manchester Mayor said amongst other criteria it meant ‘building affordable joint-up public transport systems’ and jobs for ‘young people so they don’t have to mouth south’.
Over the next few months, Kier Starmer needs to outline exactly what levelling up means, and set a number of criteria which are tangible, and can be regularly tested by voters. For too long Labour have spoken to the electorate in a language that sounds clever on a university campus but means nothing in everyday life. Abandon the talk of ‘structural’ or ‘institutional’ discrimination and oppression, and instead begin to speak about how many jobs you wish to create, what form of education system you wish to build, and how cheap a ticket should be to travel on the bus in Hartlepool.
In the 1997 election Blair published a list of five pledges which summed up his targets for government. They were pledges that all voters could assess in their everyday lives. For instance one was to ‘cut class sizes to thirty or under’. This is a concrete visible test, that means something to people. Labour should aim to create a similar test concerning the Government’s plans for levelling-up.
These could be targets for broadband coverage, or the number of shops boarded up in the high street. This will allow the party to own the issue and provoke the media to keep cross checking Conservative plans with Labour criteria. It would also offer Starmer the chance to outline the radical economic investment programme that is needed across northern England, and incidentally would be welcomed by the left of the party who yearn for high-spending policies.
By beginning to make the issue of ‘levelling-up’ their own, Labour will also find an answer to its current emotional hollowness. Torn between the identity politics of its younger members and the Brexit patriotism of the red wall, Labour has yet to define what values it stands for. Without values, it is hard to make a compassionate emotive argument.
A fortnight ago there were several protests. In Oxford City Centre, postal workers, healthcare staff, and race activists were marching under a number of different banners and slogans. 160 miles away, Manchester United fans stormed the pitch of Old Trafford in anger against the club joining the failed Super League project. Fifty years ago, such protests would have been united under the language of ‘class’, but this is no longer possible with sharp differences in the economic make-up of those who dominate Black Lives Matter, and the fans of Manchester United.
Yet stripping away differences of class, age, and race, there was one significant connection. Each individual was seeking dignity out of a situation in which they felt no control over. Individuals have for years been told that job losses, erosion of local culture, and changes to their high street or community, have been because of globalisation. In its very nature, this a force hard to touch and identify. Thus leaving millions ready to be angry at something – but not quite sure at what.
This powerlessness has been both a cause and effect of more people feeling a lack of dignity. This is down to not having a job to be proud of or a town centre to be happy about, or feeling alien to the national conversation going on around you. For some communities, this is seeing their beloved football team (an identity and expression of themselves) torn apart by owners foreign to their community’s history and traditions. To others it is experiencing discrimination because of the colour of their skin. And to others it is not being rewarded for the efforts of their employment. Thousands of public sector workers face wage and pension cuts, after effectively keeping the country running during the pandemic.
It is this emotive feeling that lay at the heart of calls for more investment, and its one the Labour Party can succeed in placating. The antithesis of dignity is respect – the promotion of which Labour can achieve in two ways. Firstly, by respecting the office and position in which they represent. Kier Starmer is a leader who promotes values of honesty and public service, in a way voters agree Johnson does not. This means not accusations of extravagant wealth – voters aren’t repelled by wealthy politicians per se – but rather the ways in which one behaves. Donald Trump did not fall because of his lies and scandals. But I do wonder whether voters would have noticed as much as they did, Joe Biden’s righteousness and impeccably moral behaviour if he was not up against Trump.
Secondly, the areas demanding investment, the people demanding race reform, are all wanting the same thing. To be listened to, and to have control over what happens next. Show that you respect them, by responding to these calls. Labour are uniquely capable of rising above the culture war that the Conservatives wish to create. This is because both sides will listen to them. Whilst many race activists won’t engage with the Tories, Labour can appeal to them at the same time as fans of Manchester United.
Labour should aim to unite both groups through policies that show they respect them as individuals. This involves greater devolution, thus empowering local communities to affect change in their societies. A criticism of Government investment plans is that they ignore the capabilities of local councils who are better suited to delivering for their area.
Empowering people within their communities can be achieved by increasing the presence of workers on company boards, and instead of focussing efforts in classrooms on the history of race as a standalone topic, teaching it as part of the local history of one’s area. Analysis of local history commonly reveals stories of racial harmony. More importantly, by making one’s local community the focus of study, where there is something wrong, students will feel more motivated to correct it – this is something that has happened in their town – as well as believing they have the capacity to enact change. It is always easier to change something smaller and closer to home.
How to make this a coherent message?
These two strands of respect can be combined into a cohesive message around the issue of health. Technology and the pandemic mean the issue of our personal and national health will dominate the next decade.
In the last year we have entered an era that celebrates collective responsibility. This has involved the promotion of nurses and care home staff, along with individuals who have their sacrificed their livelihoods to protect others. This is not the individualism of free-market capitalism, but closer to the socialist communitarian values of the Labour Party.
After the summer, Labour should promote a radical social care and NHS reform programme. It will touch upon calls to level up through bigger and larger plans. It should build upon the local community efforts that have grown during the pandemic. And joining all this together will be a softer version of British nationalism.
Making the national case in terms of looking after your fellow citizen, ensuring people live a life that can fulfil their needs for dignity and respect, is a huge opportunity for Labour. This is not the Conservative’s form of English natioanlism, but a more benevolent and open version. All peoples working together to improve the health of their local community and nation.
This avoids the sort of nationalism that puts off Labour’s younger left wing activists and offers a patriotic message that means the party dodge charges of not being proud of their country. It is about the national effort, to improve the collective health of the nation, for the benefit of all. It delivers respect, dignity, and also leads to the need for further investment: hospitals, community support, vaccine manufacturing sites.
Brexit was not a right-wing movement. Although orchestrated by the Tory party , the calls to leave were based on traditional left-wing values. Of national respect, community, and state led investment. These are the attitudes which will determine British politics for at least another decade. It will be remarkable if the Labour Party never come to power from this context.