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24 June 2024

The death of the levelling-up dream

The promise made to the voters of 2019 has been betrayed.

By Alex Niven

Whatever happened to “levelling up”? At the start of the decade, after a Tory landslide won with the help of a promise to “unite and level up, spreading opportunity across the whole United Kingdom”, it was nearly impossible to escape the phrase. But in the thick of a rather anaemic 2024 general election campaign, references to anything so bold as a concrete plan for addressing regional inequality are notably absent from the rhetoric of both main parties.

In the red corner, Keir Starmer has said relatively little on the campaign trail about raising up the regions. Meanwhile, the rapidly self-immolating Tory establishment seems to have forgotten it ever invented levelling up in the first place. Facing a probable massacre at the polls, Rishi Sunak’s strategy seems to be merely to try to limit the damage by stoking fears of Labour tax rises. Where in all of this – we might ask – are the gaudy, headline-grabbing, almost inevitably specious electoral catchphrases promising decentralised power and redistributed wealth to the regions that have dominated the past decade of British politics?

Not that levelling up itself was ever all that easy to define. A successor of sorts to New Labour’s Urban Renaissance and George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the idea crossed over into public consciousness during the 2019 general election campaign, at a time when there was much talk of the collapse of the “Red Wall” (another increasingly passé term) and an apparent Tory takeover of the north of England (though Labour won a clear majority of northern seats even in 2019).

Against this backdrop, the levelling-up meme – a leitmotif of the 2019 Tory manifesto – took centre stage. For some, Tory manifesto promises of renewed investment in “every part of the United Kingdom” seemed to explain the party’s sizeable electoral gains in the north and Midlands in 2019 (though Brexit, the personal popularity – or otherwise – of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, and longer-term demographic shifts were probably far better explanations for the Labour-Tory drift in post-industrial areas). 

Still others viewed levelling up as something more substantial than a cynical piece of electioneering. And perhaps – for a brief interlude at least – they were right. Though it is hard now to recall, there was a vague sense in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 election that the Tories under Johnson might have turned an ideological corner and broken with the austerity-dominated politics of the 2010s.

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In the last days of 2019, and into the first weeks of 2020, what might be called Johnsonism-Cummingsism (an awkward coinage, but nothing else will quite do) did indeed threaten to develop into something faintly resembling a coherent political philosophy. As Johnson’s then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings conceded in a blog post published during the 2019 election campaign, he “understood why many [were] tempted to vote for Corbyn”. “Under Cameron and [Theresa] May,” he went on, “there were some big decisions about priorities that were wrong.” It was clear that Cummings had austerity in mind here; as he put it: “most importantly, from summer 2016 [then chancellor Philip] Hammond repeatedly blocked cash for the NHS and other services.”

It would be a big mistake to conclude from all this that Johnson and Cummings planned to correct the mistakes of the Cameron-May era by dragging the country leftwards under a flag blazoned “levelling up”. Nonetheless, it is not implausible to suggest that without the destroying angel of Covid-19 and everything that followed from it, the Johnson government might have made good on the tentatively statist vision it outlined in the 2019 election and its epilogue.

In theory, this might have resulted in a sort of British Gaullism, in which populist nationalist rhetoric combined with reinvestment in front-line public services and a populist industrial strategy (largely focused on those areas “left behind” by austerity), and which channelled money and resources into the English regions through a series of Johnsonian grands projets. As Johnson put it in his EU departure speech on 31 January 2020, his government was intent on “the biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians”. If levelling up was ever going to mean anything, this was it.

But ultimately – like the “new era of friendly cooperation” Johnson promised would follow from Brexit – a British Gaullist levelling up failed to materialise. Perhaps the death of this short-lived dream was a case of unlucky external shocks like Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine ruining the economic base on which the hypothetical infrastructure projects were to be built.

But probably it would have foundered anyway on the rock of Johnsonian hubris. Even with more favourable economic winds, it seems unlikely that the clownish, venal Johnson government would have had the means or the courage to truly renovate and revive infrastructure in the north and Midlands – let alone raise up their economies to anything like parity with the south-east.

As the days of lockdown and Eat Out to Help Out gave way to partygate, the farce of the Liz Truss interlude and the final Tory throw of the dice that is Sunakism (a sort of managerial centre-right autopilot), levelling up has grown ever-more gaseous and ghostly. The terminology lives on, to be sure, in a cabinet position currently held by the lame duck minister Michael Gove (who seems likely to be the last occupier of the post), and in a sprinkling of references in the 2024 Tory manifesto to alternately half-baked and controversial initiatives like investment zones, a seaside heritage fund, freeports and business rates retention zones.

But there is a conspicuous absence in the Tory manifesto of the sorts of large-scale infrastructure commitments Johnson was wont to make in his imperial phase (whatever happened to HS2 – not to mention its putative sequel HS3?). Indeed, what is notable about the Tory offer heading into this election is that levelling up has now – at the lamentable end of its lifespan – come to mean something like: “a handful of routine and rather meagre spending pledges aimed at plugging the much bigger hole created in the 2010s by our own austerity policies”.

Meanwhile, away from the death throes of contemporary Toryism, the impoverished civic landscape that provoked levelling up into being in the first place has not disappeared. The north of England – which, despite not being the only focus of levelling up, is surely its locus classicus – continues to be severely disadvantaged on all kinds of statistical measures. The transport system in the north (as in the rest of the country outside London) remains in a state of disrepair, and many regional cities and towns have still not recovered from the effects of 2010s austerity. The UK continues to be one of the most spatially unequal and over-centralised countries in the 38-member OECD.

Perhaps we should be grateful, given the extravagant failure of levelling up (and before that its even more pointless predecessor, Northern Powerhouse), that the probably incoming Labour government does not have an equivalent catchphrase for tackling these structural dilemmas. (Indeed, the Labour 2024 manifesto makes specific reference to the “empty promises”, “gimmicks” and “gestures” of the probably outgoing Tory regime).

But that does not mean that regional inequality will not be one of the most formidable obstacles standing in the way of a successful Starmer government. Its legacy will ultimately depend on its ability to find a subtler, more meaningful sequel to one of the hollowest, most impotent political slogans in recent memory.

[See also: How to fix a nation]

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