Keir Starmer should lead ‘levelling up’ debate; why isn’t he? – Justine Greening

THE current Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, visited the Bradford Opportunity Area just days ago, talking about its work in glowing terms.

There should be far more Opportunity Areas to help raise school standards, writes Justine Greening.
There should be far more Opportunity Areas to help raise school standards, writes Justine Greening.

It bodes well for getting many more Opportunity Areas created, as The Yorkshire Post has rightly campaigned for over many months.

Meanwhile, in a separate intervention last week, former Prime Minister Tony Blair also backed the creation of more Opportunity Areas – place-based projects to improve school outcomes that I introduced as Education Secretary.

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It shows the broad-based and cross-party support for an approach that is genuinely improving life chances for many children across Yorkshire and potentially for many more children and young people there and beyond in the future. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on the campaign trail in Batley.

In political terms, Mr Blair’s intervention also underlined the challenges Labour faces with its current lack of leadership under Sir Keir Starmer as it faces another bellwether by-election in Batley and Spen on July 1.

Whatever you think about Mr Blair, he was an election winner for Labour, leading the party to three general election victories in a row. Mr Blair understood, as Boris Johnson does, that it is the politics of aspiration that wins elections. It’s why it’s a natural step for him to support an ambitious wave of 100 new Opportunity Areas.

By contrast, Keir Starmer and the current Labour leadership have failed to show any meaningful engagement with today’s politics of aspiration, the ‘levelling up’ agenda. Yet building a Britain where people have the same chance to get on in life is one thing people across the country can agree on and it transcends party politics.

There are many of those in Labour, such as the new Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin and other MPs like Bradford West’s MP Naz Shah, who do understand the importance of this and speak passionately about why improving social mobility matters.

Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary.

Levelling up should be just as relevant to the Labour Party as it is to Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. Yet, with over a year as leader, Keir Starmer has still not set out any meaningful policy agenda with alternative proposals.

There is a mistaken reticence that using the ‘levelling up’ rhetoric is somehow conceding political ground to the Conservatives when, in fact, it is what voters across the political spectrum want to see delivered on the ground.

Mr Starmer seems devoid of any inspiration or drive for the issue, let alone any solutions on how we deliver more and fairer opportunities for people. Democracy works best when there is a genuine debate and genuine choice, but right now Labour isn’t even on the pitch when it comes to offering its own alternative on how to level up Britain. 

Under Mr Blair, Labour became a party that tapped into people’s aspirations for a better life, memorably saying its three top priorities were ‘education, education, education’. Mr Blair’s premiership and landslide 1997 election victory were moments to level up Britain that were too often missed and derailed by foreign affairs.

Tony Blair was passionate about education - but does Sir Keir Starmer have a policy?

Boris Johnson too, with his own landslide, must also guard against the risk that he wastes a golden opportunity to change Britain for the better, derailed instead this time by Covid-19.

But thus far, under Keir Starmer’s lacklustre leadership, Labour nationally hasn’t just given up on talking about ‘levelling up’ and aspiration – it has never started in the first place. Recent local election results show we are in a less politically tribal society, where Brexit has also loosened traditional party loyalty ties across the board.

Voters are picking whichever party has the best offer for them and their family on giving more and fairer opportunities for a better future. That’s how it should be and it will create a healthy race to the top in British politics, shifting it away from the politics of division and towards the politics of solution. 

The route back to success for Labour is starkly clear. The party must come up with a competing Levelling Up plan of their own. It’s how it can make headway again in many communities in the Yorkshire region and elsewhere that has rightly decided they’ve been taken for granted by the Labour Party for far too long.

Mr Starmer could lead a wider, national debate on levelling up. The recent by-election result in Chesham and Amersham shows no party can take voters for granted as the realignment of British politics continues apace. Instead it’s the Lib Dems tapping into voter concerns and winning in Chesham and Amersham whilst the Labour vote collapses there too.

Keir Starmer only seems to be good at one thing – missing open political goals. Voters simply don’t know what his version of Labour stands for any more.

He must raise his game by setting out Labour’s own distinct offer on levelling up and equality of opportunity. After well over a year in charge, there are no excuses for no ideas. It’s crucial for the country but also for his continued leadership. Keir Starmer must listen to his MPs who understand this challenge on the ground in places like Yorkshire. If he doesn’t his likely choice is: level up or stand down.

Justine Greening is a former Education Secretary. She comes from Rotherham.

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