OPINION - Andy Burnham: Levelling down London to level up the North would be beyond vindictive

·4-min read
 (Amanda Searle)
(Amanda Searle)

Following this week’s shadow Cabinet reshuffle, it feels like two-party politics is entering a more competitive phase. Sir Keir Starmer has got strong players in the right positions while Boris Johnson is busy losing his dressing room.

But there is a big piece of unfinished internal business before Labour can turn its collective fire on the Government. We urgently need a common approach on the defining theme of this Parliament. Perhaps it was always inevitable that “levelling up” — prioritising some areas over others — would become increasingly divisive. Perhaps the Conservative Party always intended it to be that way. If so, all the more reason why everyone in Labour needs to be aware of that trap and avoid falling into it, as we have recently done.

Two weeks ago, on the very day the North was having its rail ambitions downgraded, a few eyebrows were raised here when Labour figures in London went public with criticism of us rather than showing solidarity with us against the Government.

This was frustrating and undermined the welcome commitment from Starmer and Rachel Reeves to build Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. But, given the politics of the North, it was also unwise. Winning back the trust of voters here is crucial to Labour’s chance of forming the next government. But that is made harder when some in London give the impression the world revolves around them. From our point of view, when northern leaders have pointed out England’s stark transport inequality, we have always been careful to say we don’t begrudge our capital city its world-class services. Indeed, I have said the same in this column.

Instead, our call has been for equal treatment: London-style transport and London-level fares. We have also made the point that London has never had to choose between good north-south and east-west rail connectivity — so why should we?

If the North’s transport is ever to be “levelled up”, it’s inevitable that northern mayors and MPs will point to the difference between our services and the part of the country where they are perceived to be best. That’s not “London-bashing” but the most effective way of holding the Government to account on behalf of our voters for the multiple promises they have made. But the longer I have been in politics, the more I try to see things from the other side of the argument. I can appreciate how, to London ears, the phrase “levelling up” contains an implicit threat. And, in the context of the argument about TfL’s finances, I can see there are growing fears the threat is about to be made real.

From here, two things are clear. First, the pandemic is the primary cause of TfL’s financial problems. Second, the Government has undoubtedly been playing politics with this issue.

Perhaps, then, a moment has arrived when Labour can come back together and agree a common line on levelling up. I’m sure the vast majority of people in the North do not want to see Londoners punished with loss of services. If it turns out “levelling up” means bringing your bus fares up to the level of ours, then it will be a policy that benefits no one and go down as one of the most vindictive this country has ever seen. Cities around the world are reducing the cost of public transport and it would be a massive retrograde step if our capital was forced in the opposite direction.

So let me be clear: we stand in full solidarity with Sadiq Khan as he leads this fight on behalf of Londoners. But, in return, we hope London will stand with us as we continue to call for London-level bus fares and our own version of Crossrail. This could provide the basis for Labour to set out a more convincing, less divisive version of levelling up. And, with Lisa Nandy as the new shadow levelling up secretary, we have just the person to lead this change.

One policy idea which could symbolise the new approach is the call from northern mayors to help fund our new rail line by clawing back from private landowners the windfall for land values when new transport infrastructure is built. London should back this — it could be hugely beneficial for the capital. More broadly, Labour should pledge to give London the powers to raise finance and fund infrastructure — the things Boris Johnson used to call for when he was Mayor. This would let London do more for itself and lift it out of the divisive politics of “levelling up”.

Right now, with the deadline on TfL’s funding deal looming, I can imagine that feels quite attractive.

Do you think the Government is trying to level-down London? Let us know in the comments below.

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