We’ve had ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘take back control’. Now we have ‘levelling up’. But is this simply the next empty Tory slogan, designed to cash in the gains from the last election? The Tories have broken down the ‘red wall’, but they need to convince the ex-Labour heartlands that the shift was worth it. So the political motivation is there, but are we in danger of Johnson’s flagship policy turning out to be yet another failed educational and economic reform programme?
Of course, the idea of levelling up is not new. And, indeed, the need to do so is certainly not a political, vote-winning myth, even if the motivation behind this for the Conservative party is perhaps more flimsy. Onward, the UK think tank, has recently done a report into lost learning from Covid and uncovered the systemic rifts in education in this country. Primary pupils in Yorkshire & Humber, the East Midlands, and the South West are twelve times as likely to live in a local authority with an above average share of pupils attending an underperforming school compared to London. Further, places such as Hartlepool, Hull, Kinston and Nottingham rank the worst decile of areas for GCSE attainment since 1998, despite two decades of supposed educational reform in those areas. The economist, Paul Collier, argues that this has resulted from decades of agglomeration: concentrations of highly-educated, wealthy people in densely populated areas means that the South is demographically weighted against the North.
Thus the issue is a very real one, and coronavirus has only exacerbated what have already been pre-existing systemic inequalities. However, the question is whether the government’s proposed solution is in fact as veracious as the reality it claims to tackle. Keir Starmer charged the Tories with ‘pork barrel politics’ over how they dispensed with a £4.8bn levelling up fund. Indeed, the pork-barrel bias seems fairly blatant. Eleven areas in England, which are not only solely Tory seats but are also in the lower half of the national deprivation rankings have been put in the fund’s highest category; North Yorkshire, Sunak’s constituency, being one such example. Further, of the 93 local authorities in priority one 51 have just Conservative MPs; 16 Labour; and 26 both. What should, therefore, be a pragmatic programme to solve an acute and immediate problem might end up proving to be another flippant political tool used to secure the Conservative gains of the last election.
Top Down or Bottom Up?
Beyond the mere fact that it appears that Boris Johnson may be treating levelling up as a political tool rather than as a policy priority, there are inherent issues with the logistical side of the programme. The fundamental problem is that plans for levelling up depend heavily on one-off spending schemes and infrastructure spending, both of which constitute a short-term, top-down approach. Indeed, the ISC (Infrastructure Strategy Council) predicted that the levelling up programme therefore has a high probability of ultimate failure. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, summarised the problem: asserting that, ‘you don’t level up from the top-down. Rather, you level up from the bottom-up”. Hence localised, idiosyncratic spending decisions based on individual areas’ specific needs would be far more effective. Even the fundamental issue of the competitive bid system constitutes a hindrance, since this approach disadvantages those areas with the least resources to make a competitive bid.
Hence, as with all major infrastructure programmes, the key to success is having the ability to balance a holistic vision for levelling up, with flexible enough machinery to deal with inequality region by region — from the bottom up.
Levelling Down To Earth
Geographically-dependent inequality, in particular the issue of lost learning, will be one of the highest priority problems in the UK following the pandemic. In fact it is arguably the domestic issue of our time. But it is worth remembering that the pandemic has not created the issue, but exacerbated an already pre-existing one. Educational inequality is not a new phenomenon, but one that has simply been highlighted by the pandemic as something which can no longer be ignored or brushed under the carpet by spontaneous and poorly-distributed budget injections.
However, the issue is a complex one: money is not the only necessary ingredient for solving it. Machinery — both local and national, and indeed the way in which we square the two — and bureaucracy are at the heart of the puzzle. And with a post-Covid and post-Brexit economic downturn looming ominously on the horizon, vacuous political slogans will not work this time.
The FT aptly condensed the difficulties into a neat and bleak summary: “This government wants to deliver a hard Brexit, end austerity, bring the nation together, level up the less-successful regions and create renewed economic dynamism. But the economy’s trend is dismal, the fiscal position weak, regional divisions entrenched and Brexit damaging. Glib slogans will not fix any of this. In the end, reality bites”.
Johnson has promised much, and he should not get away with simply gaining votes by perpetuating toxic culture wars and pork-barrel politics. The electorate needs to keep a close eye, and ensure that he is held accountable for his promises.