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7 October 2020updated 13 Sep 2021 5:07am

Why Johnson’s Tories are fools to believe they have a new way of achieving social justice

Britain’s regional inequality is tenacious, chronic and complex. If only solving it were as simple as reversing neglect.

By Philip Collins

Boris Johnson’s copy on the website for the Tory conference makes one pledge of vaulting ambition and one claim of lazy fiction. In a single sentence, which was the predicate for his conference speech, the Prime Minister erected a standard by which his government is destined to fail. “We now have an opportunity,” he wrote, “to level up… in parts of the country forgotten by successive governments.”

Britain has, reports the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the starkest regional inequalities in the developed world. According to 2017 ONS data, only three parts of the nation – London, the south-east and the east – generate an economic surplus. It has been so for a long time. In 1901, London’s GDP was twice as high as the north-west’s, and nearly ten times that of East Anglia.

To bring these disparate regions into line, to redeem the Prime Minister’s promise, is going to cost a fortune. If, for example, transport spending in the rest of England were brought into line with transport spending in London, £22bn would need to be set aside. There will need to be extensive job guarantees in retail and hospitality, a comprehensive programme of skills acquisition, planning reform, a more equitable tax system and a substantial transfer of power to local government.

In one sense, this ambition denotes a remarkable new consensus. The Conservative Party is committing itself to equality of outcome by region. Boris Johnson calls it “levelling up” rather than the more poetic “equality” because he wants to imply that left-wing egalitarians deliberately deprive some to enrich others out of misplaced envy. The left-wing version, he is saying, is levelling down, the equality of the grave. The further implication is that, under the Tory variant of equality, the poor can get richer and nobody else will be less well off. It is the absolute optimal in which all shall have prizes.

It will be tempting for Labour to dismiss this as hypocritical nonsense. The decline of the regions was, after all, accelerated by the Thatcher government’s rapid deindustrialisation and the Cameron government’s austerity. The Johnson government is, in effect, running against both of its predecessors without acknowledging the fact. The more subtle response, however, will be to welcome the late conversion to social justice and keep score. It would be intriguing to establish a list of constituencies that are in the laboratory of levelling up. On one side, let’s take the constituencies represented by the current cabinet. On the other, 20 seats that went from Labour to Tory in December 2019. Then let’s track the data on, say, unemployment, school attainment, life expectancy and entry into university. Let’s see if Bury North improves more than Surrey Heath. Let’s watch Sedgefield surge as Esher and Walton stays still.

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Johnson has not the first clue how he is going to move the numbers. If he had, then the headline of his conference speech would not have been all wind. In fact, he might even make it worse. His government has equalised the spending allocations to schools, the effect of which is to transfer resources to places that need it less. The outcome will be neither levelling up nor levelling down. You find some places get even better A-level grades and some places even worse. Equal funding produces unequal outcomes and Johnson has pinned himself to the latter.

His government has also announced new rules to shift investment towards poorer areas. This laudable aim in fact runs contrary to the powerful tide of modern economies, in which the greatest value has been created by gatherings of talented people in cities. We will correct regional inequalities by improving the performance of provincial cities.

Johnson’s political problem is more precise than that, though. He needs improvement to come in the towns, and he is not alone in being unsure how to achieve that. Even if he finds the right measures, the results will be a long time coming in, much too late for the political cycle.

The problem of regional inequality is tenacious and chronic. The sheer fondness of Johnson’s view of the world is contained in the second part of his website couplet. “In parts of the country forgotten by successive governments,” he says. If only the relative impoverishment of Hartlepool were down to something as simple as neglect. If only the underlying problem was an amnesiac elite who somehow forgot that Middlesbrough existed. All we would then need is an appropriately attentive government. A generation of decline would be succeeded in an instant by progress.

The truth is, sadly, much more troubling. Policy has been abundant and expensive and not entirely successful. There is a dull book to be written on the 1998 New Deal for Communities, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, the Local Enterprise Growth Initiative and sundry urban regeneration funds. Between 1999 and 2007, billions of pounds of public money went into deprived areas under the rubric of neighbourhood renewal.

It would be too gloomy to say that it had no effect at all. Nurseries and health centres were opened, the standard of housing was improved, crime and vandalism fell more rapidly in these areas than elsewhere. School attainment improved and so did job prospects. Yet, after Brexit and the collapse of the Red Wall, it would be naive to claim it as a triumph. The point, though, is that the failure was not for want of trying. It was a failure of active policy, not a failure of passive neglect. The lesson is that change is hard and slow, and a government that reduces a chronic problem to the slogan that nobody has ever tried is not even starting in the right place.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid