Elections are generally lost not won. Throughout the trauma of Theresa May’s premiership and the paralysis of Johnson’s Government prior to the 2019 election, however bad things got, the Conservatives were able to look across the aisle confident that – almost whatever they did – Jeremy Corbyn would find a way to make them look competent by comparison. He could pluck defeat from the jaws of any victory.
For the first seventeen months of Starmer’s leadership nothing much seemed to have changed. Whatever disaster have befallen the country (and there have been plenty), the Conservatives have continued to look like the only option.
It wasn’t so much that Starmer was as out of touch as Corbyn, but more that he failed to change the narrative about his party. Labour confusion over Brexit followed by the pandemic meant that Starmer just couldn’t get the media’s attention.
Now, however, Starmer is beginning to poke his head above the parapet. His Fabian essay even nods towards a Labour version of levelling up, place-based regeneration. It remains to be seen whether his conference performance does cut through, but, at the very least with the resumption – up to a point – of politics as normal, the Conservatives can no longer rely on Labour’s vanishing presence.
What’s more, while it might be argued that Starmer doesn’t know what he stands for, is weak, invisible and lacking direction, some of the same criticisms might be levelled at the government itself. The fuel crisis has provided a media metaphor for uncertainty and inaction.
It is hard to paint Starmer as scary, so it is not enough to weave three syllable slogans and trust Labour to implode. What’s more Starmer’s positioning of himself as ‘serious’ versus Johnson’s triviality has some potential. The mere being of the Labour leader is no longer enough to guarantee defeat.
So, the Conservatives’ task for this conference is to avoid replacing Labour as the party which loses by default. With a built-in majority – bolstered by the SNP and the decline of the Lib Dems – this shouldn’t be too hard, but with labour shortages, the pandemic, the exams fiasco, and now the fuel crisis, for the first time for some time the Conservatives risk looking even less competent than their opponents. It is time for a plan.
And that means time to flesh out the buzzwords of ‘levelling up’. Throwing money at major infrastructure projects in the North and hoping that some of it sticks is a strategy of sorts but the benefits of a new road cutting through my valley on its way from conurbation to conurbation might quite literally bypass my town. As David Cameron’s former policy director, Camilla Cavendish, wrote earlier this week in the FT “real levelling up is about people not place”.
Earlier this year, Radix was proud to publish a series of seven essays by a cross-party group of MPs on how community spirit had helped their constituencies through the first lockdown. Called Together Again, they included tales of the most incredible generosity, revitalised voluntary organisations, proactive local authorities and exciting social entrepreneurship.
This was levelling up by people and it showed that this agenda is not the exclusive territory of one party or another – levelling up is up for grabs.
One of those essays was by Danny Kruger MP now part of the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I urge him to take the lessons for those essays – his own and his political opponents – into government. Economic renewal won’t be released by top down dictates and developments from the London Treasury, but by releasing the potential of hundreds and thousands local initiatives and entrepreneurs across the country.
That is the challenge for the Conservatives and they need to start now, because this is everyone’s agenda and others are also eagerly eyeing it up.