How to unite the ‘levelling up’ tribes

Drawing on recent research published by Demos, Ben Glover and Andrew Phillips discuss how attitudes to levelling up differ across the country and what this means for the government’s flagship agenda. 

The morning after the last general election, Boris Johnson set out his government’s mission: “to unite and level up”. Yet little detail has been added to that vision since, resulting in a flurry of interested parties seeking to define what levelling up should be. 

But it shouldn’t be policy makers, industry groups or national charities who define what success looks like. The interested parties should be the citizens of those places targeted by levelling up. That’s why we conducted new polling of the former red wall – the fifty seats Labour lost to the Conservatives at the last election in the North, Midlands and Wales, plus Hartlepool.

The former red wall has broadly similar views to the rest of the country on levelling up

We find that the former red wall’s views on levelling up are pretty similar to the country at large. Physical social infrastructure – such as improved high streets, parks and public services – is the top levelling up priority for red wallers and the average voter alike, and local actors are much more trusted to deliver levelling up than the UK government. 

Strikingly, power is more important than money: the public are more than twice as likely to want less money for their local area and more say for local people over how it is spent (55% of general public and 53% of former red wall), compared to more money and less say (21% of general public and 23% of former red wall).

That the average person living in the red wall has similar views on levelling up to the average Brit shouldn’t be so surprising. 51 constituencies is quite a large swathe of the country, and recent YouGov research has also described how people living in the red wall look much like the rest of the country.

The former red wall is stickier than elsewhere

Notwithstanding this, there are a few important differences between the red wall and the country at large. One of these is that red wallers are much less likely to be willing to endure a long commute to work – just a quarter of workers there would be willing to travel for more than two hours per day for work, compared to more than four in ten of all workers. They’re also much less willing to move somewhere else entirely for work – around half of workers overall (48%) would be willing to do so, compared to just 35% of red wall workers.  

Nobel prize-winning economist Esther Duflo has argued that in the real world, people are less mobile – or ‘sticky’ – than in the representative agents found in economics textbooks. This appears to be particularly true for the red wall. 

Differences within the red wall are more important than those between the red wall and elsewhere

While we found relatively few differences between the red wall and the public at large, we did find important differences within the red wall. 

Overall, younger people are more likely to prioritise change, in comparison to older people. They are more likely to want new jobs, even if this means more people move to the area or the character of the area changes. 

For example, 63% of 18-29 year olds in the red wall want new jobs in their local area, even if this means the character of an area changes, compared to just 48% of those aged 45-59. Similarly, among 18-29 year olds there is net support (+6%) for higher paying jobs even if some of them are taken by people moving to the area. In contrast, there is net opposition among 45-59 year olds (-29%) and people aged 60 or over (-32%), who say that higher paying jobs would only be a good thing if they are taken by current local residents.

This chimes with our research last year on towns. We found town residents fall into two broad groups, both of roughly equal size. ‘Early adopters’ tend to be younger, more liberal and pro-change and growth; ‘preservers’ are generally older, more conservative and opposed to change in their local area. It appears similar cracks are found in the red wall.

A narrowing of levelling up?

Given this, the levelling up challenge appears to not be uniting disparate places, but bringing together people with different views in the same places. Far from the monolith it is often presented as, the red wall is split on some of the key issues relating to levelling up. This could have wider political ramifications. 

As has been widely detailed, the average Tory voter skews old and has been getting older. This means they’re less likely to be in favour of economic change if it results in demographic shifts or the character of their local area altering. This could push the government away from the bread and butter economic issues of levelling up – new jobs, for example – towards less controversial ‘social’ areas. In particular, our previous research on towns found a strong consensus across ‘preservers’ and ‘adopters’ on protecting the high street. So we could see an abandoning of the more economic aspects of levelling up in favour of more ‘social’ dimensions.

We’re firm believers in improving our country’s social fabric. But levelling up narrowly construed as this would be a missed opportunity. The UK’s over centralised economy has been a blight on our country for decades and money just for high streets won’t fix that.

Devolve and unite 

For economic transformation to remain part of levelling up, local people need to be united. Otherwise, older, more conservative voters are likely to be left unimpressed. Two things are needed for this to happen. 

First, local government must be empowered to lead levelling up. This is because bridging local divisions can’t be achieved from Whitehall: it needs to be led by those on the ground.

That’s why we’re calling for proper devolution in the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper to put local government in the driving seat. While the levelling up agenda has been so far characterised by a high degree of centralisation, Neil O’Brien’s recent remarks that one of the four key principles of levelling up is empowering “local leaders and communities” give us hope for change.

But devolving power alone is not sufficient to address this issue. Newly-empowered local government must take steps to build that consensus. There are a raft of options to help facilitate this, given recent innovations in participatory and deliberative democracy. 

These range from in-person forms of engagement, such as citizens’ assemblies, to new forms of digital engagement. Recognising the financial pressures faced by local government, central government should step up to the plate and provide grant funding to help local actors carry out such engagement.

Putting local people in the driving seat will ensure they can come together to bridge divides. Only this approach can keep the two levelling up tribes together and deliver that  vision espoused on the steps of Downing Street two years ago.