Levelling up, fair growth: who can deliver?

3 March 2023

By Charlotte Alldritt

4 minute read

We might be 18 months away from a general election, but the key players and their outriders are gearing up for the fight. Kier Starmer was first out of the blocks on Monday with an exposition of the first of his five missions for a better Britain – growth. Specifically, to “change how our economy grows and who it grows for”. While striving to be the fastest growing economy in the G7 is not a particularly high bar considering recent trends, the Labour leader was clear in his commitment to create, in his words, fair growth: growth that will deliver improved living standards, increased real wages, better jobs and more vibrant communities. Here Starmer picks up CPP’s vision for spreading growth more fairly between people and places, delivered through public service reform and renewed business investment, local and national.

In these five missions Labour have finally got the beginnings of a coherent, compelling policy offer. But the task of delivery will be gargantuan, especially after a decade in which the state has all but forgotten how to function. Starmer will need to inject a huge amount of energy into delivering real, rapid change if he’s going to make the tangible, significant changes needed to fix the fundamentals of the UK economy and get us out of our low productivity, low growth malaise. Clarity of mission will help to galvanise that energy in the face of competing priorities and the inevitable distraction of day-to-day events. But currently there’s every chance that Labour’s missions – amidst ongoing fiscal constraints – will offer little more than the slogan politics we’ve grown used to in recent years, many targeting the same idea of fair, inclusive growth.

Michael Gove sought to put clear water between the two main Westminster parties this week in an unusual (and presumably No.10 endorsed) intervention, hosted by our friends at Onward. But apart from a plea to unite the country and move beyond the culture wars – inevitably invoking them even more – the lines were finely drawn, and more targeted at the Trussite liberal right. Gove argued for an “inclusive economy” in which levelling up is both an economic and social imperative, promoting “national welfare, national solidarity, national unity, as abiding duties – missions, if you will.” A party in peril is one that needs to consider its future while in office, but this was a statement designed to rehabilitate Conservativism once again as a movement that cares about how the market works, and to what ends. Family, church and community are important buzzwords for committed Tories, but they were more window dressing around a core economic theme demonstrating paper-thin differences – at least as currently defined – between Starmer’s left and Sunak’s right.

The levelling up agenda – the beating heart of Johnson’s campaign for office – promised much but has delivered little. Keir Starmer is now putting levelling up in his own terms, which is necessary and all the more powerful in giving him and the Labour party distinct credibility and authority in this space. But the risk for both parties is that, in pitching for the same voters on the same platform, they will have to rely on trust and perceived competence. Voters will ask, will either actually do anything? Who do I trust to deliver? Both leaders will be hoping they can put their own parties’ baggage behind them. After the Tories’ 13 years in government and with skeletons bursting out of WhatsApp's proverbial cupboards, the odds are edging in Starmer’s favour.