Last week saw Conservative MPs in seats won from Labour in 2019 starting to break cover on the inadequacy of the government’s approach to regional inequality. Tory MPs are waking up to the reality that the prime minister’s repeated rhetoric about levelling up doesn’t appear to be accompanied by much that resembles an actual plan, still less the capability to deliver it.
For all Johnson’s semblance of change, the reality is that the Conservative Party has been in power for over a decade now. Responsibility for the state of our country rests with them.
Of course, it still is not clear what the government means by “levelling up”: whether it’s incomes or living standards, communities or individuals, livelihoods or places. There is a simple narrative about regions of the UK which have done well out of the last 50 years, and regions which have not, but like most simple narratives it hides as much as it reveals.
For many measures, inequalities within regions are sharper than they are between regions. What’s more, different areas face very different challenges in terms of jobs, skills, transport, and infrastructure.
And in Britain today, for too many people, where they live limits their opportunities and their chances to succeed. Central government must play a key role in tackling that. As recent weeks have shown, mayors and metro mayors have been powerful voices for change in their areas, but without either powers of their own or the government on their side, voices are sadly all they are.
The pandemic has made the picture more complex and at the same time more difficult. The areas hardest hit by the immediate effects of the last seven months do not map neatly on to the areas that have suffered the greatest relative decline over the last couple of generations. The need for rapid support now, and the long-term thinking and spending necessary to ensure a sustainable future for Britain’s economy, demand different but connected strategies. The common thread is that, for areas across our country to survive and thrive, investment needs to be in people as well as in places.
In the months ahead, businesses in many industries face difficulties either because demand has – at least for now – dried up, or because the restrictions rightly in place to control the virus make it either impossible to operate at all or impossible to operate profitably. Instead of handing out billions of pounds in job retention bonuses to companies that don’t need the money, Labour would have focused support much more carefully on the sectors that both need support now and are crucial for our country’s future. Hearing the Chancellor claim that this was too difficult, or that preventing good firms going bust was “picking winners”, was a powerful reminder of how far the Conservative Party has travelled from its days claiming to be the party of British business.
The coming one-year-only Spending Review will sadly tell us little about whether the government is serious about the challenges we face and the ambition that a “levelling up” agenda could include. Delaying a comprehensive spending review while the pandemic is raging is understandable, but it has undoubted downsides for our country. Local government and the devolved administrations face another round of being unable to plan investment, services, and spending for more than a year ahead. The lack of certainty about resource and capital budgets makes it impossible for them to profile investment spending in a way which best supports both rebuilding local economies and sustaining them in the difficult times ahead.
What’s more, it’s evident the delay is a symptom of weaknesses wider than the pressures of the pandemic. It’s now two-and-a-half years since the government received the National Infrastructure Assessment. The delay in publishing a full response is inexcusable and shows how little time, thought, and energy has been invested in the key challenges facing our country in the decades to come.
In the short term, as the shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds set out in September, we need rapid action to recover jobs, retrain workers, and rebuild our economy. Attention in the last month has been on their job support schemes. But with hundreds of thousands out of work already, furlough now at an end, and the government’s skills programmes not starting until April, the longer-term emphases on retraining workers and rebuilding businesses are just as important.
It’s also why one of the real weaknesses of the government’s approach to supporting jobs has been the lack of imagination in transforming our country, sustaining livelihoods, and planning for the long term. Labour would have integrated training into the job support scheme, as well as tying support to conditions around employment practices and environmental responsibility.
The government is grasping only half-heartedly the opportunity to marry the short term need to promote employment, with steps to accelerate the long term decarbonisation of our economy. Labour would have brought forward promised spending on improving energy efficiency for public buildings and private homes, fitting our country for a greener future.
Supporting retraining is crucial, because creating balanced and successful economies across the country is not simply about pictures of politicians in hard hats, vitally important as renewing Britain’s infrastructure is. Instead it is about ensuring that, in every part of our country, our people have the skills we need as a country and the skills they need to succeed, as the economy and our society changes. We are a very long way from that. Analysis by the Centre for Cities shows that in many of our big cities and towns, including some of those captured by the Conservatives for the first time in 2019, less than half the working age adult population have A-levels or equivalent qualifications.
I grew up in north-east England in the Eighties, and one of the abiding memories of my childhood is seeing people pushed into grinding poverty when a previous Conservative government stood by as jobs vanished from whole communities overnight. With the Chancellor focused narrowly on the cost of action rather than the risks of inaction, and with unemployment climbing as we head towards Christmas, working people across our country are at risk of being the biggest losers from a new generation of Conservative complacency.
Bridget Phillipson is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.