Published:

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Lisa Nandy’s appointment to shadow levelling-up secretary suggests levelling-up will be one of the defining domestic policy battles of this Parliament.

Labour rightly views this policy area as a way back into relevance for the working-class voters they’ve lost over the last decade. If they can’t make progress with this group of voters, there’s no prospect of a majority.

In my last column, I looked at what all voters think about levelling-up; here I focus on the attitudes of working-class leavers who voted Conservative in 2019 – people who Nandy and Labour need to speak to urgently.

(For reference, the tables for the landscape poll I did on levelling-up are available here and the relevant cross-break for working-class, leave-voting Conservatives is on the right of every third page, marked “C2DE Leave Con”.)

They’re much more down about their local towns. Because civic pride is such an issue for these working-class voters, so in turn is the huge despondency at the state of their towns. This is one of the defining aspects of their political outlook.

While much more likely to say they personally define by the town they’re from than the national average, asked whether their town was a better or worse place to live than a decade ago, 44 per cent of working-class Conservatives say worse, compared to the national
average of 33 per cent – and compared to 28 per cent of AB professional voters.

Just 11 per cent of working-class Conservatives say their town is better. As for other voter groups, rising crime and anti-social behaviour is the main reason they say things have got worse. The Government has recently picked up on the importance of crime to the levelling-up agenda, thankfully.

The high street is an even bigger factor for working class Conservatives. While the decline of the high street is a big deal for most people, it’s a massive issue for these
working-class voters. By 65 per cent to eight per cent, they say their high street has got worse, compared to the national average of 50 per cent to 22 per cent.

They’re clearly not thinking narrowly about their shopping experience; when asked how their high street has got worse, many groups of voters say it’s the decline of small, independent shops; however, working class leavers say it’s the number of boarded-up shops, which is different. The point is the decline of the high street is aesthetic and cultural, rather than simply commercial. It comes right back to civic pride: bustling high streets reflect a town that is happy, prosperous and thriving.

With this in mind, given a list of general options the Government might take to level-up the country, working-class Conservatives are much more likely to say the Government should focus on the high street than other voters (although they too put the high street below retraining and encouraging business investment). And given a list of options to help the high street, the most popular for this group is cutting business rates.

They love apprenticeships and retraining. While apprenticeships are popular nationally, these working-class leavers are particularly keen. Given a list of options to improve local universities and training, working-class Conservatives put apprenticeships top by some distance – 17 points higher than the next option of funding work placements for young people.

Given a general list of options the Government might take to level-up the country, they put retraining top (in line with the national average). In any focus groups on levelling-up, these working-class voters invariably talk about the high street first; but just behind the high street come comments about the decline of the major industries their towns were built on – steel, cars, potteries, clothing – and the apprenticeships they provided for local people.

They talk about apprenticeships partly through the prism of the economy of their town, but also, again, through the prism of civic pride: having major employers who provided skilled jobs that people could be proud of was part of their identity (something David Skelton has previously written about).

They’re even more defensive of statues. Given a list of options on the future of statues and monuments in their local towns, 47 per cent of all voters across Britain think we should keep them all up, 33 per cent believe we should have plaques which explain historical context and nine per cent think we should actively remove those that commemorate people or events we now consider immoral.

On the Tory side, 69 per cent of working-class Conservatives think they should all be kept up and 21 per cent believe in what amounts to retain and explain; just one per cent
said they should be actively removed.

What is the relevance of this question to levelling-up? While this poll didn’t go into it, in my experience, the aesthetics of statues and monuments is often under-appreciated; in many towns, statues and monuments are seen to dramatically improve the “streetscape”.

(An interesting aside: just five years ago, the Newcastle Chronicle reported that the city’s Boer War memorial was set to be restored “to its former glory” without even a passing reference to imperial controversies which have been raging in the local and national media in recent months. This reflects a simple point: very often, statues
and monuments provide a backdrop to everyday life and have no relevance either politically or culturally for most people.)

They share the general lack of confidence in levelling-up. By 47 per cent to 21 per cent, working-class Conservatives lack confidence the Government will succeed in
levelling-up the country in the next decade. This is basically in line with the national average (48 per cent to 23 per cent).

What does this mean for the battle between Labour and the Conservatives on levelling-up amongst these voters?

While there are places where the Conservatives have a natural advantage on levelling-up – crime, most obviously, and certain aspects of culture – on most issues, Labour are perfectly competitive. There’s no reason they can’t come up with innovative new policies on the high street and apprenticeships, for example.

While it’s a double-edged sword, in that working-class voters have felt Labour have taken them for granted, it helps that Labour have been in power in many working-class towns across the country: activists and candidates know these towns inside out, which isn’t always true of their Conservative counterparts.Gove v Nandy will be a great battle to watch for the rest of this Parliament.