Opinion

Seven things Labour needs to do to make levelling up actually work

The UK is on course to become the most unequal country of the world’s seven richest nations by 2027. Here’s how a Labour government could fix that

Keir Starmer Labour Levelling Up

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Image: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Reducing the economic and social inequalities between different areas, or ‘levelling up’, was meant to be the big idea when the Conservatives were elected in 2019. Making it happen has been more difficult. The UK is on course to become the most unequal country of the world’s seven richest nations by 2027. 

Labour needs to produce some long-term solutions that change the culture around redistribution and inequality in this country. One of these solutions is a Ministry of Poverty, as argued for by John Bird in The Big Issue recently. 

The case for a Ministry of Poverty was included in the report ‘How can Labour level up?’ released by the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CEILUP) at the University of West London. Here are seven more ideas from the report below.

1. Investing in early years

Inequality begins from birth. Disadvantaged children four to five years of age in England are on average 4.6 months behind their better-off peers. A reboot of the successful Sure Start programme which Labour funded when it was last in government is required. Sure Start centres offered health, parenting support, childcare, and parental employment services to families with children under five. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Sure Start was still having positive effects on 15-year-olds in 2021, two decades after the programme began.

2. Increasing university participation

Universities have provided life-changing opportunities for thousands of working-class people over the last 30 years, but we still see those at the top using their background to protect privilege. This ‘opportunity hoarding’ as Professor Peter John CBE, vice chancellor of the University of West London describes it in our report, will be re-enforced if Labour follows the present government’s plans to restrict access to university. The evidence shows the economy needs more graduates and Labour needs to enable all those who wish to benefit from higher education.

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3. ‘Smart devolution’ from Whitehall

Devolving power to localities and regions has been attempted by the government, but metro mayors need the ability to make a change. As Dan Norris, metro mayor for the West of England, writes in the ‘How Labour can Level Up’ report, we need to decide what decisions should be made at what level.

“In two years as metro mayor so far, I have not implemented much of my manifesto. Why? Because mayoral moves too often must be agreed by every council leader,” Norris wrote.

Labour should create a new Regional Government Act that will put power in the right place.

4. Fair pay agreements

Over half of those living in poverty are in working households – and this rises to over 70% of children living in poverty. We will not tackle levelling up unless we better meet the needs of working people. This means unions and employers making Fair Pay Agreements and setting minimum standards across sectors, starting with social care, and extending to other sectors which employ very large numbers of people, but where low pay and insecurity are endemic.

5. A stronger Social Value Act

The Social Value Act, introduced in 2013, is meant to make people who commission public services think about how they can secure wider social, economic, and environmental benefits when doing so. But a lack of guidance and monitoring means that where government is meant to be taking a lead it is not doing so. Our report recommends that Labour take a lead here and strengthen the requirements in the act to make those who spend public money put levelling up at the centre of what they do.

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6. Community asset ownership

Building community voice and participation into levelling up is essential. Many of the assets that are important to local communities – from pubs and clubs to shops, community centres and parks – have been lost to private developers over recent decades. Labour should give local community-based organisations the ability to first take these into their ownership. This would protect the social fabric that is so essential to the wealth and welfare of our towns and cities.

7. Doubling the size of the co-operative sector

Since the 1840s we have had co-operatives in this country. These businesses, owned by their membership in a democratic model, can include consumers, workers, or multi-stakeholder models. Co-operatives are more productive and twice as likely to still be trading after five years than other kinds of business. Giving people a stake in the work they do by providing the access to finance that co-operatives need to grow and policies that encourage rather than prevent their formation should be central to Labour’s ‘new levelling up’.

Professor Graeme Atherton is Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London. How can Labour level up? can be downloaded at www.uwl.ac.uk/ceilup

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