In recent times, conservative politicians and journalists have regularly invoked the working class – the so-called left behind – to validate their agendas. As a new book on politics and identity by the academic David Swift argues, since 2016 “the political right discovered a newfound interest in class, and in class snobbery”.
Indeed they did. And to some extent at least Boris Johnson’s government encapsulates this shift in conservative rhetoric. At the 2019 general election the Conservative Party gained a number of former Labour strongholds, or “Red Wall” constituencies, such as Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s former seat) and Ashfield and Workington. It did so on a manifesto commitment to “levelling up every part of the UK – not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made”.
If the Brexit referendum of 2016 transformed politics, it did so (temporarily at least) by sparking a renewed interest in areas outside of London and other major cities. Parts of the country that politicians felt they could safely ignore were suddenly cast into the spotlight – examples of a working-class backlash against the political establishment. Much as in the depressed 1930s, scribblers fanned out of London and up North to see for themselves the deprivations that had befallen the “left behind” classes and write about them for middle class, metropolitan audiences.
The levelling up agenda was a response to this change in the national mood – even if, as Swift writes in his book A Left for Itself, at the 2019 election the Conservatives were actually “reaping the electoral benefits of the social, economic and cultural disenfranchisement caused in no little part by their own historic and present policies”. The levelling up agenda included tentative promises of bold sums of money for high-street regeneration, as well as for boosting local transport and culture.
So what has happened since levelling up was first announced in 2019? The government’s long-awaited white paper is set to be published in the next few days. Yet already it has been revealed that some of the money announced in what the government has called its “radical new regeneration programme” is not new money at all, but rather money that was already allocated. For example, a “new £1.5bn brownfield fund” being made available from April 2022 was initially announced by the Chancellor in last year’s Budget.
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According to the government, the white paper, which has been repeatedly delayed, will “breathe fresh life into disadvantaged communities”. Yet so far only 20 areas have been chosen by the government to benefit from the scheme. According to reports in the i, government sources are sceptical about the contents of the new white paper, with one saying that “Everyone, including the Secretary of State [Michael Gove], thinks it’s shit.”
In public, however, Gove remains bullish. In a piece for the Mail on Sunday, he writes that the “new funding” which Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries “has secured for the arts will go to communities in the North and Midlands, not Notting Hill and Marylebone. And Nadine will make sure that it’s the values of working people, not just the preferences of Primrose Hill, that drive how taxpayers’ money is spent on culture.”
As so often in recent years, culture war clichés function as a replacement for policies that would improve the lives of actual working-class people. Indeed, despite the government’s purported commitment to levelling up deprived areas, large parts of England have actually received less funding since 2018.
According to House of Commons Library data analysed by the Labour Party, Leeds has lost as much as £109m in funding since 2018. Additional data from the same source also finds that schools in London are getting more money per pupil than areas in the north of England, despite having a smaller proportion of children on free school meals. London schools, where 22.6 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals, received an average of £5,647 per pupil in cash terms in 2021, whereas the North East received an average of £4,919, despite having the highest proportion (27.5 per cent) of pupils qualifying for free school lunches.
The right’s newly kindled love affair with the working class – a subsection of the working class to be sure: white, older and usually living in small towns and rural areas – always rang rather hollow. Were we really to believe that politicians and pundits – the ideological successors of those who whooped and hollered as previous Tory governments gutted and impoverished Britain’s former industrial areas, sometimes even the same people – had undergone such a dramatic change of heart?
It’s certainly true that there is merit in the notion of levelling up parts of the country that have been neglected for decades by governments of all stripes. As I discovered when I undertook my own journalistic odyssey to Britain’s former industrial areas in 2016 for my book Hired, decline has been tolerated as a fact of life by politicians in Westminster; an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of unassailable “global market forces”.
The new style of conservatism that has ridden to power in recent years – both in the UK and elsewhere – has anointed itself the champion of “working class values”. In rhetoric at least, it has rejected the narrative of decline. Yet as demonstrated by the lukewarm announcements unveiled in the government’s long-awaited levelling up white paper, prolier-than-thou rhetoric is no substitute for material prosperity and investment. Denouncing latte-drinking elites from fictional barricades is no replacement for spending the large sums of money in areas of the country that require it.
The former may play well for media outlets where attempts to kindle a culture war are enthusiastically being waged, but I suspect, as evidenced by the collapse in Tory support in the Red Wall, that day-to-day material concerns are more important to working-class people than what goes on in Primrose Hill. At least, this is true as far as actual working-class people are concerned – rather than the fictional, beer-swilling caricatures beloved by the new right.