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Labour’s levelling up
Sensemaker audio

Labour’s levelling up

Labour’s levelling up

Both Labour and the Conservatives agree the country needs to level up. How we get there is where the parties split.

Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, how levelling up is the new religion in British politics.


Labour’s leader Keir Starmer had other plans for Monday too. Here’s the headline in the Times, which reads “Emboldened Sir Keir Starmer plots Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle, the story went on.


On Monday, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, announced a surprise reshuffle of his shadow cabinet. 

And whilst eyes have been on the theatre of it all… 

It does look a bit like Keir Starmer’s overshadowed his Deputy Secretary there.


There’s one person everyone should be looking at: Lisa Nandy. 

Lisa Nandy moved from Shadow Foreign Secretary to Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities opposite Michael Gove. 

At face value, it looks like a demotion. 

But when you look closely, there’s far more at play. 

This move by Keir Starmer is yet another sign that levelling up is the new battle ground in British politics. And he’s chosen Lisa Nandy to spearhead Labour’s agenda. 

The choice isn’t particularly surprising – Lisa Nandy has been talking about “levelling up” the north before levelling up was even a thing. 

She said in an interview the new job “felt a little like coming home.”

But what does everyone actually mean by levelling up? And why is it so important?


In the run up to the 2019 election, Boris Johnson promised to ‘forge a new Britain’. 

A Britain that had 50,000 more nurses in England and 50 million more GP appointments.

A Britain that would “Get Brexit Done”.

And central to this new Britain was the idea of “levelling up” – a policy that’s all about investing strategically in the most deprived regions to strengthen the country as a whole. 

But on the battlefield that is British politics, there are two warring visions of what levelling up actually means. 

On the one side there is Michael Gove.

In all cases you can’t, I think, have successful levelling up without the private sector playing a critical role right from the very beginning.

Policy Exchange

 The current Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – who’s been tasked with turning Boris Johnson’s favourite catch phrase into an actual policy. 

And on the other is Lisa Nandy. 

Yeah, I’m happy to say it but I’d much rather that we did it. And in some ways I’m not sorry that the tories have come onto the territory that should naturally belong to labour. 

Policy Exchange

Michael Gove sees the levelling up agenda as being about “making opportunity more equal across the country”.

And it hasn’t all been rhetoric: last year the government announced a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund for investment in local infrastructure. 

However, critics, and this includes people within certain corners of the government itself, have said that the approach has been insufficient, scattered and chaotic.

Two years after the manifesto pledge there still isn’t a real way to measure success (or failure.)  

All in all, it’s not yet looking great for the Conservatives when a large part of their seismic win in 2019 was attributed to “red wall” votes that were convinced by the levelling up agenda that Boris Johnson championed.

Especially as the gap between the north and the south seems to be getting worse: almost 20% of adults in the northern town of Burnley have no formal qualifications, compared to just 3% in Brighton. 

 Let’s circle back to Lisa Nandy and Labour, she’s only been in this role for a few days but she’s had a lot to say about the topic of regional inequality for more than a decade. 

And, unsurprisingly, she’s been highly critical of the government’s scheme.

The government promised to level up the north of England and yet what we’ve got is a situation where the next generation of young people are having their life chances absolutely undermined because of a lack of care and thought.


Many in Labour have said that the government’s centrally managed funds defeat the purpose of levelling up – the control is still in Whitehall.

So there’ve been calls for devolution to metro-mayors in big cities like Manchester and Liverpool. 

But Lisa Nandy has pointed out that concentrating all power and resources in cities, even those in the north, is not necessarily the answer.

That’s because investment in cities doesn’t inevitably trickle down to surrounding towns and villages. 

This is where the two visions of levelling up diverge: Michael Gove’s which is central and top down and Lisa Nandy’s which is grassroots and bottom up. 


The Government’s over reliance on London as an economic force has been a problem for almost a century. 

And whilst successive governments have paid lip service to closing the gap between the capital and everywhere else, inequalities are widening. 

A report out today says children in areas like this are too often left behind in the northern part of northern England these kids just don’t get the focus London children enjoy.


Reviving run down areas is essential – we can all agree on that – and with both of our main parties committed to action, there are grounds for hope.  It’s all a question now of how we get there. Expect to hear a lot in the months ahead from Lisa Nandy and Michael Gove.   

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.