It is “unforgivable” the Tories did not follow through on their pledge to level up left behind areas of the UK, Sir Keir Starmer said as he launched Labour’s local election campaign.

The Labour leader would not however commit to “turn the taps on” and help ailing local councils to fill their funding black holes.

Sir Keir also suggested the local elections were a chance for voters to send “another message” to the Conservatives, as he urged Rishi Sunak to call a general election.

Ahead of the May 2 council and mayoral polls, the Labour leader touted his party’s “local growth plan”, and suggested he favoured longer-term funding deals for councils if his party were to win power at a general election.

At the launch in West Midlands town Dudley alongside his deputy Angela Rayner, Sir Keir appeared to praise the sentiment behind the Conservative’s levelling up agenda.

But he claimed the Government “didn’t do the hard yards” on the plan to reduce regional inequality, and suggested his party would drive a “fundamental shift” in politics through devolution.

He added: “My frustration of the past 14 years, but particularly since 2019, is that in saying levelling up, the Government was tapping into something real that people yearned for, but they didn’t have a viable plan. And they didn’t do the hard yards. That’s unforgivable.

“And we intend to turn that around and make sure that we can make that connection real."

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove hit back at the Labour leader, telling broadcasters: “Keir Starmer couldn’t be more wrong.

“We are the party that’s been leading on levelling up for years now.”

New analysis shows the gap in earnings between workers in the North East and London was £26,221, a rise of £5,231 compared to 2019.

The growing gap means working people are paying the price, despite Tory promises to end regional inequality.

This wage gap analysis by Labour Together comes as Sir Keir accused the Tories of “preying on hopes” of working people by failing them.

Together with Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Angela Rayner, Sir Keir has launched the party’s campaign document which includes new detail on how Labour will unlock the true power of the regions to tackle this levelling-up failure.

Under a Labour government, Labour’s flagship Take Back Control Act will unlock a new wave of devolution, with new powers available to local leaders to kickstart growth in their areas.

New Local Growth Plans will help create good jobs and open up new opportunities, so people have more money in their pockets.

Labour believes that local leaders have better knowledge and ability than Westminster decision-makers to work with their local economies to find new opportunities for jobs and growth.

A Labour government in Westminster would work in partnership with mayors and councils to rebuild Britain.

Sir Keir said: "That working people in the North East have £5,231 less in their pocket than those in London is a damning indictment of how much the failure of the Tories' levelling up policy has let working people down. 

“We will restore the pride in places like the North East and across the country with our plan to spread power and put communities in control.

"Democratic decisions are better made by local people with skin in the game. And devolution is absolutely essential for taking on regional inequality.”

Ms Rayner said Tory Levelling Up has been revealed to be "a total gimmick".

She said: "While the Tories come up with sham slogans, Labour is making plans to hand power back to the people.

“People in the North East deserve better than to be £5,231 out of pocket each week with decisions being made for them hundreds of miles away.

"Instead, our Take Back Control Act will deliver Local Growth Plans that tackle wage inequality and end the division between our regions and nations.”

Pressed about whether Labour would seek to plug these shortfalls, Sir Keir said: “There is no playing political games on this, councils of all political stripes are struggling with the lack of funding they have had over a prolonged period and we need to turn that around.”

Sir Keir said there was “scope for different kinds of funding settlements” pointing to longer three-year deals for councils, rather than the current one-year settlements.

But he added: “I can’t pretend that we can turn the taps on, pretend that damage hasn’t been done to the economy, it has. The way out of that is to grow our economy and that takes me back to the plan that we are launching today.”

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The Labour leader also said he had “full confidence” in his deputy as she continues to face questions about the sale of her council house, and the pair sought to portray a relaxed mood at the top of the party.

Ms Rayner joked the Prime Minister was “the political equivalent of that friend from back home who says he will get the first round in if you pay for the taxi and yet when you get to the bar he is nowhere to be seen”, but described the Labour leader as “the man who does always get his round in”.

Sir Keir referred to his deputy informally as “Ange”, and continued the joke, adding: “Don’t be tempted by her favourite drink, the venom cocktail, or you will live to regret it.”

Referring to the general election, the Labour leader said he had hoped to launch “a different election campaign here today, but the Prime Minister bottled it”.

“He wants one last drawn-out summer tour with his beloved helicopter. So we need to send him another message, show his party once again that their time is up, the dithering must stop, the date must be set,” he added.

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Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed Labour’s local election launch was a “smokescreen”, as it sought to move on from suggestions it would not not honour the Government’s new childcare provision.

He told broadcasters: “The Labour Party in office devolved no powers to local authorities.

“In just the last two years we have devolved powers to two-thirds of local authorities.

“I am afraid this is a smokescreen for the fact that just this week the Labour Party have said they are refusing to guarantee the free childcare offer for every child over the age of nine months.

“That is going to be a hammer blow for families up and down the country who from next week are going to start to benefit from the biggest ever rollout of childcare in our history.”