Tinker, tailor: Communicating the levelling-up agenda

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher 

In trying to win the ear of the UK government, many organisations claim that their work contributes to the levelling-up agenda. Perhaps they are right. However, little attention is paid to what is possibly the most important nuance of all, which is that the levelling-up agenda can mean very different things to different parliamentarians.

Levelling-up isn’t a straightforward ‘policy’ in the traditional sense. Nor can it be determined by any one single metric or piece of legislation. Rather, levelling-up is more of a catch-all term that embodies a complex set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together form a broad ambition for the government.  

It is important that organisations realise – as the levelling-up tsar himself, Neil O’Brien MP, said – the measure of levelling-up will be very different across the country. For example, in Devon and the South West access to high-speed broadband might be the most important measure of levelling-up, while in the West Midlands and North East better transport infrastructure may be the key indicator. 

Parliamentarians are aware of the issues their constituencies care about, and what the measure of levelling-up looks like to them, and organisations would do well to recognise and approach this in three ways.

Firstly, always think local. It’s widely accepted that the success of levelling-up will be measured in smaller areas, not big regions. O’Brien says “we aren’t just interested in the difference between, say, Yorkshire and London, but in the differences within them. Places with problems can be right next to places that are booming.” When communicating with parliamentarians and with government, the more localised you can be, the more likely your argument will land.  

Secondly, lead with figures. Dominic Cummings and his allies may have left Number 10, but this government continues to be driven by the data. Local statistics and evidence are not only helpful. but they are essential when making your case. With the added pressures of the pandemic, government and parliamentarians are turning to organisations to provide evidence-based solutions and policy ideas.  

Lastly, focus on the long game. The 2019 Spending Round made clear and the forthcoming Budget is likely to reiterate that this government is committed to a longer-term strategy when it talks of levelling-up across the whole country. Naturally, there are some things that can be delivered quicker than others, such as building new school and repairing roads. However, levelling-up should be perceived in the context of a longer-term ambition to improve our economic resilience and restore our cultural and social fabric.

To conclude, when communicating the levelling-up agenda to government, organisations would do well to remember the simple adage, “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

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This piece was written for our website. 

We live in different times

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications and Founder & Director of do Different.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to do different; and that ability to adapt has never been more important. I was born, went to school and – for all intents and purposes – spent most of my teenage years in Beverley, a market town in East Yorkshire famed for its Minster, Westwood and racecourse. I consider myself to be a Beverlonian.  

With my parents passing away when I was quite young, and my sister at university on the other side of the Pennines, I had to grow up quickly living on my own.  

I recall a handful of conversations with my Dad – him telling me never to forget my roots, and that if I put the hours in it would pay off in the end. Heeding that good advice, I read plenty of books, got my GCSEs and worked every weekend. 

Somewhere along the way I developed an interest in politics. I later learned my great uncle, Arthur Watts of Watts Bros. hauliers, was Mayor of Beverley (1939 – 43). As I write this, a model of one of those trucks sits proudly on my desk.  

During sixth form, I chose to study politics at night college and my enthusiasm grew stronger. With A-levels under my belt, I secured a place at UEA and off to Norwich I went.   

It’s well-known that ‘People in Norfolk do things different.’ We’d get along handsomely during those three years, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I had.  

Fast forward 13 more and I’ve had the honour of working on behalf of a variety of organisations based around the world. Today, I’m following the trend of launching a UK-based start-up during lockdown; a business that does things… differently. 

It’s time to do different

But it’s not just about me; for we live in different times and we must all do different. 

Before Christmas, I wrote: “2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.” I meant the UK could move forward after years of Parliamentary stalemate and the Government could focus on levelling-up the country. 

However, nobody knew what was around the corner. 

Much of what’s taken place over the past six months has been in the works for a while. What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations. 

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, a sea change or as one politician cited: a paradigm shift.  

Even when we find a vaccine, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms, and become more resilient. 

But with all this change – for example, how we work, how we spend and how we consume information – there is a renewed emphasis on businesses to understand the landscape in which they operate and the world in which their stakeholders now live, while ensuring they continue to stand out from the crowd. 

In this regard, people need partners who get the big picture, get what needs to be done and can get stuff done. That’s me. 

Only then, can you sit down and join our American friends across the pond in sipping a delicious cup of Yorkshire Tea – sales of which have soared 926% – as they stock up to see through the presidential campaign.  

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This piece was written for Adam’s company website.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.