There is no great difficulty in understanding what levelling up means, and how much of it happens may not matter at the next election. Let’s start with the last point first.
Were the country to be consumed by shortages and inflation come 2024, or whenever the next contest takes place, people won’t be worrying much about whether others are better off than they are.
Rather, they will be frantic about how buy the food they want, get to work and pay their bills. Britain is not stuck in any such state yet, but the gas price surge and truck driver shortage phenomenon is a reminder of how vulnerable we all are to the unexpected.
Mention of other people takes us to what levelling up means: namely, improving the position of poorer Britain in relation to richer Britain. Or, as Boris Johnson put it, “the gains had been greatest among the poorest groups and that is what I mean by levelling up”.
The Prime Minister was speaking in his much-derided summer speech on the subject. And was referring to place as well as status. (Specifically, to the Jubilee Line tube journey from Westminster to Canning Town during his spell as Mayor of London.)
Levelling up is also a child of place – in this case, of the Brexit referendum result. Look at this interacitve mapping of what happened. The heartland of England’s Remain vote was London. From it, three corridors ran through parts of the Greater South East,
The first went down from London into parts of Surrey and through a bit of Sussex to Brighton & Hove. The second moved west through sections of Berkshire and Oxfordshire to Stroud and Cheltenham. The last sloped north-east from Luton to Cambridge.
Broadly speaking, this vote was a combination of studenty, public sector and ethnic minority Britain allied to parts of the South-East. As so often, the picture is complex. The age dimension was crucial. And the results were mostly close.
But there can be no doubt about the picture overall: the Remain vote in England was concentrated in the bits of it that did well out of the economic model of the Thatcher-Blair continuum.
This stressed financial services, low wages, high immigration and an arguably over-valued currency. The Leave vote tended to be higher everywhere else. Without Boris Johnson’s emotional connection with it, the collapse of the Red Wall wouldn’t have happened.
Natural Labour voters gradually became alienated from the party’s values and preoccupations. The party’s performance this week in Brighton suggests that reconnection is a work in progress.
Mock if you wish those seeking to clamber aboard the Levelling Up bandwagon – angling for publicity, grants or patronage, in much the same way as their predecessors did at the time of David Cameron’s Big Society and Tony Blair’s Third Way.
Enjoy the journalists and commentators having fun by mocking different Ministers who give different definitions, or springing the question on ruffled Tory MPs or activists.
Or make the more telling criticism that people matter as well as place, and that it’s little use seeking to provide more opportunities for poorer people in poorer areas while neglecting poorer people in richer areas.
Or agree with James Frayne that those outside the Greater South East believe levelling-up won’t happen (which contributed to the Conservatives not quite winning the Batley & Spen by-election)…
..While those inside it fear that it will, because their taxes will pay for it (which contributed to the Party losing the Chesham and Amersham poll).
For all that, Johnson has made the idea an integral part of his premiership, and doubled down by sending in the ubiquitous Michael Gove to deliver it – the real Deputy Prime Minister.
But how in less than three years – perhaps in less than two, if there’s an early election – is the work of generations to be undone, and parts of the country that have been in semi-permanent recession to be nudged out of it?
Lots of ink and pixels have been spilled on trying to answer the question. See James Frayne’s attempt on this site, where he references more security in local parks, support for local museums and libraries, and better use of local institutions that deliver leisure services.
“Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t,” he writes. Rachel Wolf, co-author of the last Conservative Manifesto, takes the same kind of line here, as well as setting out tests for delivery.
You may dismiss all this as a collection of parts, but it has a theme. All of it is about stuff you can see: signs of progress. If the slogan of oppositions at general elections is “time for a change”, their next, if they win, is New Labour’s: “a lot done, a lot still to do.”
The contours of the coming Conservative campaign are taking shape. At the macro-level, the Prime Minister will spew out statistics, like some especially demented Lucky in Waiting for Godot, about progress, real and alleged.
That speech on Levelling Up gave a preview. “40 new hospitals and recruiting 50,000 more nurses”:…”hippodrome theatre in Todmorden”… “50m for football pitches”…”the wise decision of Heinz tomato ketchup to relocate back to Wigan”…”A303 to the greater south west”…
Make him stop! voters will cry. Meanwhile, at the micro-level, shiny eager Conservative MPs will be pointing to whatever’s new that voters can see, and deploying their first-time incumbency effect (which suggests a trade-off between its benefits and those of new boundaries).
None of this short-term progress will guarantee long-term change. And the life chances of poorer people in poorer places, or better-off ones for that matter, won’t be transformed by taxing richer people in richer places.
The Government’s plans for levelling-up longer term are worryingly dependent on tax and spend, a state that grows bigger, and the channelling of taxpayers’ money to worse-off areas through specialist funds.
But delivering it would take more than a reversion to spending control and lower taxes, in the wake of the pandemic adjustment. A boom would risk simply reflating the old model.
No, to get longer-term the Government would need to build on what the Coalition started through the Northern Powerhouse. Which means more localism in Levelling Up White Paper, when it comes, and in whatever emerges from it.
Government can’t deliver levelling up, apprenticeships, more skills, a stronger Union zero carbon, transport and industrial strategy from the centre.
As David Lidington put it to this site, “the new mayors have a convening power: they can get local businesses, the Chief Constable, the NHS bigwigs, the university vice-chancellors, the local enteprise partnerships round the table, and come up with a plan.”
If Labour’s fissures grant the Prime Minister a decade, localism will be the test of whether he can shift the country on its axis, like Atlas in the Greek mythology that haunts his imagination.
In the meantime, what levelling up means, above all, is a little bit of love in parts of the country that have felt short of it – a bit of care, a bit of attention. Talking may turn out to matter as much as seeing.