As part of a series of seven focus groups in West Yorkshire and Humberside released this week, groups of new and older Labour and Conservative voters – as well as Brexit Party voters and those that did not vote at all in December 2019 – UK in a Changing Europe asked people what they understood by the phrase “levelling up”, as well as their wider thoughts on party politics. The key lesson is that the idea Boris Johnson’s election victory was about levelling up, and that his chances of re-election rest on delivering that promise, is over-inflated.
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the golden rules of storytelling. While 99% of the public may not have read the 2019 Conservative manifesto, at the start of his premiership, Boris Johnson was showing voters every day what it meant: a willingness to do whatever it took to get Brexit done. There is some merit to the idea that telling voters about “levelling up” supplemented this story – further evidence the Conservatives were broadly on their side.
But the first thing to note is that the vast majority of voters we spoke to had not heard of the phrase. If it didn’t elicit a shrug they were nearly as likely to say it was about a PlayStation game, or attitudes to gender equality, than regional infrastructure spending. When asked why the Conservatives won where they live, Corbyn and Brexit were the most common answers – no one spontaneously mentioned “levelling up”.
This links to a second factor that emanated from the discussions: the general cynicism of voters. Tapping into some of this cynicism and presenting himself as an outsider was part of the reason why Boris Johnson was so successful last time. But this works the other way too. It is worth noting that, as IPPR and TrustGov found, the further away you live from Westminster, the less likely you are to trust MPs. And, as my colleague Paula Surridge has noted, new Conservative voters are much less trusting of MPs than those who always vote Conservative. So newly converted voters in the Red Wall – those being targeted by levelling up – are also most likely to be turned off by partygate, and to have stopped listening.
The third, linked problem, is that it was never possible to “level up” in one electoral cycle anyway. It should not surprise policymakers that voters are not particularly patient. Yet the deadline of 2030 for delivery of levelling up was presented in some quarters as a great political ruse: a cheque today that voters could only cash if they lent Boris their vote once more (and this idea the vote was “lent” ran across our groups). The reality is that jam tomorrow only gets you so far, and voters are impatient and quick to judge: polling has shown that 77% of adults who want levelling up said they would be happy if it were delivered in three years; that decreased to 37% were it to take five years.
This time last year, the working assumption in Westminster – indeed a very real fear within the Labour Party – was that a “hanging basket” approach could square the circle for the government on levelling up: providing symbolic change to local areas as a down payment for long-term economic change. Yet when voters are more cynical about your behaviour and your motives, you are even less likely to be given that sort of leeway.
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And yet, despite all the cynicism, there is plenty of survey evidence that people feel that regional inequality is really important. Yet when asked about the economy in general terms, in focus groups voters are far more likely to zoom in further than the town they live in to their own wallets, or zoom out and discuss what they hear about the effect of the pandemic on jobs and the wider economy. In all the discussion of places like the Red Wall, the people that live there are often forgotten.
The government may have the right – and, indeed, would be right – to tell us that much of its levelling up paper was about achieving long-term increases in productivity and a genuine rebalancing of economic performance by improving the lives and opportunities of people. The problem with telling voters this, is that by 2024 they won’t have much to show for it.
Dr Alan Wager is a Research Associate at UK in a Changing Europe.