LONDON — Boris Johnson rarely misses a chance to promise to “level up Britain” — but most voters don’t know what he’s talking about, according to a new poll.
The promise to “level up” opportunities for people living in regions of the United Kingdom long forgotten by Westminster has been a central plank of the British prime minister’s pitch to voters. While the phrase is generally understood to refer to addressing regional inequalities, Johnson has struggled to define its parameters beyond that.
One in four Britons have never heard of the strategy, a YouGov survey shared exclusively with POLITICO suggests, while 50 percent have heard the term but either have no idea what it means or are unsure. That leaves just a quarter of people who say they know exactly what leveling up means.
Johnson recently sought to turbocharge the relevant ministry by renaming it the Department for Leveling Up and placing senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove in charge. Gove is set to produce a more detailed blueprint for the strategy in the form of a white paper, expected early in the new year.
YouGov’s findings indicate he may have his work cut out to get these policies to resonate with voters, however.
One of the key strategic calculations for Johnson’s ruling Conservatives is how to hold onto the seats in the North and Midlands that they won in the landslide election victory of 2019. These so-called “red wall” constituencies were traditionally held by the opposition Labour party and voters there long complained of underinvestment and neglect by Westminster. Newly elected Tory MPs in those constituencies argue it is vital for Johnson to come good on his commitments to “level up” to make sure that their seats don’t flip back to Labour in the next election.
Despite this, public understanding of the concept appeared to have declined over the last year. Compared with a similar poll carried out in December 2020, the proportion of those who said they knew the slogan’s meaning had dropped by seven percentage points and those who said they did not know what it meant had risen by 14 percentage points.
Despite their shaky grasp of the finer points of Johnson’s plan, expectations among voters are high. Half of the British public think that the current amount of money the government spends in their local area is too low, YouGov’s research found.
In the North East and the North West of England, two-thirds of residents (66 percent and 65 percent respectively) think the government is not spending enough money in their local area, the highest proportion of any region in Great Britain.
This compares with just over a third (36 percent) of Londoners who feel the same way.
People tend to think leveling up will make little difference in their local area, with only 7 percent believing that it will lead to more money being spent in their communities.
While optimism for more local spending is low across all regions of the U.K., it is lowest in the South East of England (3 percent think leveling up will bring in more money where they live) and London (5 percent), and highest in the North East and North West of England (12 percent).
Labour’s Shadow Leveling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It’s no surprise people don’t know what leveling up means — after two years the government can’t even agree what it means.”
She called on ministers to “stop tinkering” and “trust local areas to drive investment” in better jobs, transport and opportunities.
A Department of Levelling Up spokesperson said: “Our ambitious plans for levelling up will transform the economic geography of every corner of the U.K., and our White Paper will set out how we will achieve this.”
The spokesperson specified that leveling up “means boosting living standards, improving public services, enhancing civic pride and strengthening local leadership.”