374: The end of levelling up
The Conservative Government is consigning levelling up to the dustbin of political ideas. Along with terms such as the Big Society, levelling up will soon be a distant memory. But the political need to rebalance the UK remains.
The concept of levelling up was at the heart of Boris Johnson’s approach, underpinning the 2019 Conservative manifesto which stated, ‘this Government is committed to levelling up all parts of the United Kingdom’ and forming the backdrop to his short premiership. This culminated in Michael Gove assuming the role of Secretary of State for a government department which even had levelling up in its name – the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – and saw him become the author of what must be one of the longest White Papers in history.
The reaction to Gove’s White Paper was generally positive but after several years of discussion it was clear that levelling up remained an opaque concept. Few could really put their finger on what it was or the type of policies it would generate.
That naturally meant that it was liable to be dumped by Johnson’s replacement. If the ‘big brain’ of the Conservative Party could not really describe what levelling up was then there was little hope for anyone else. Accordingly, the end of Boris Johnson has signalled the death knell of levelling up.
However, the end of levelling up has allowed the candidates to demonstrate that their time in office will be very different from that of Johnson.
So far, the leadership candidates have shied away from using the term at all. It has appeared fleetingly in Rishi Sunak’s launch video and was mentioned again by Jake Berry when backing Tom Tugendhat but it has yet to feature anywhere else.
But even these mentions have opened some space for Labour. Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy, has claimed that the Conservatives have abandoned the policy but that by contrast, Labour remains committed to continuing the regional inequality fight.
For the Conservative leadership contenders, the real battles have been around tax and spend. Some policies have been put forward but often as a way of attempting to inflict damage on a rival candidate. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that levelling up will be replaced by competition blue in tooth and claw, especially between cities. This will be a more free market type approach to the inequality challenge which remains across the UK.
The emphasis will be less on what central government can do and instead on what communities can achieve themselves. In that sense, it marks a return to the Northern Powerhouse type model as envisaged by George Osborne. Osborne’s model enabled ‘the North’ to compete more actively on the global stage.
However, there is a danger that a competition-based model will result in winners and losers. If, as the contenders have been suggesting, lower taxes are a priority (either immediately or in the near future) then the government may not have the means, let alone the motivation, to step in and address the potential failures.
The government has been making changes to the way in which in projects are assessed so monies are distributed across the country rather than being favouring London. There is a question whether this would reflect a more market-based approach.
All governments try to address regional imbalances. Levelling up was merely Johnson’s attempt but other PM’s and governments have also made efforts to redress the imbalances, some more actively than others. What we do not yet know, is how the Conservative leadership candidates will try to deal with the challenge.
There is also a clear electoral imperative for the Conservatives to consider. Johnson’s electoral coalition included making inroads into the Red Wall. A new leader will have to address how to maintain a coalition between the Red Wall and, the more traditional, Blue Wall. It is not clear whether a free market, low tax approach will do that.
While the term levelling up may be relegated along with Johnson, there is no doubt that a replacement will be needed soon for economic and electoral reasons.