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Can Whitehall’s Gramscian Leninist deliver on levelling up?

Michael Gove has earned a reputation for ruthless efficiency and intellectual curiosity. But those attributes won’t be enough to solve the UK’s glaring regional inequalities.

By Jonny Ball

When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, he kept a picture of Vladimir Lenin on the wall of his office. The framed image of the Bolshevik revolutionary served as Gove’s inspiration for taking on the educational establishment by pushing through the most drastic reforms to the national curriculum and to school organisation in decades. The leftwing teaching unions and progressive educationalists that he referred to as “The Blob” were his Romanov dynasty, to be deposed and replaced by sheer force of will, and by any means necessary.

At the Department for Justice, Gove was widely credited with solving many of the rampant problems he inherited from his predecessor – Chris “failing” Grayling. Now Secretary of State at the newly named Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Gove comes with a reputation as a highly competent reformer and as one of the Conservative Party’s intellectual leaders. He is fond of quoting the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and cited him as an inspiration (along with the television personality Jade Goody) when he was Education Secretary.

In a speech last year, he identified “a deep sense of disenchantment on the part of many of our citizens” and said that there was “deepening a gulf between elites and those whom they governed or employed”. It was these credentials, and his comfort in wandering into the traditional ideological territory of his opponents, that led Boris Johnson to put Gove in charge of his flagship levelling up policy.

But now it seems he has met his match. The unstoppable force of Gove’s crusading zeal has met the immovable object of the Treasury and the Conservative Party’s old orthodoxies.

[See also: Levelling up won’t save Boris Johnson]

Even before the Levelling Up white paper was published on Wednesday, it was reported that the Secretary of State thought his own policy proposals were “shit”. No new money had been forthcoming from the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose fiscal conservatism and Thatcherite instincts are becoming more apparent in the months since the Autumn spending review.

At the dispatch box, echoing the words of the 1974 Labour manifesto oft-quoted by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Gove told MPs that levelling up would “shift wealth and power decisively towards working people and their families”. But rather than set out a blueprint for the wholesale transformation of the UK’s economic geography, the 300-page document was presented to parliament as a sprawling mix of rehashed, already-announced policies, bizarre sections of historical filler on Renaissance Italy, and a set of noble objectives (“12 missions” in white paper parlance) to improve life in “left behind” Britain without any of the policy substance or financial muscle needed to achieve them.

The roots of the UK’s well-documented spatial inequalities (the worst in the OECD) were well-diagnosed. Gove’s paper pointed the finger at breakneck globalisation in the second half of the last century, the decline of traditional industries, automation, and the painful transition from a Fordist, coal and steel-based manufacturing economy to one where growth was centred around silicon, services, the creative and cultural industries, and the emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. Those sections could have been lifted directly from any Labour Party policy document.

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But the remedies prescribed were thin gruel indeed. The plans for the Shared Prosperity Fund replacing the EU’s regional development grants were re-annnounced, along with the Integrated Rail Plan, the Towns Fund, the Community Ownership Fund, free ports, and the Levelling Up Fund. This was much of the last two years of domestic legislation repackaged and presented optimistically as a “complete system change”. Vast chunks of the document bore a striking resemblance to Theresa May’s now-defunct Industrial Strategy. Taken together, the centrally-controlled funding pots – for which local authorities must submit endless pleas, proposals and business plans to be in with a chance of benefitting from Westminster’s munificence – don’t amount to anything near the £2trn that the Centre for Cities estimates would be the true cost of closing regional divides. Nor do they compensate for the billions cut from local authority budgets since 2010. The Levelling Up Fund itself has been sullied by accusations of “pork barrel politics”, as analysis has shown that affluent areas, many of which are represented by front bench ministers, have been awarded more money than many deprived neighbourhoods.

[Read more: Michael Gove’s levelling up plan looks suspiciously familiar]

The paper promised more devolution deals and elected mayors “for every area of England that wants one”. But that didn’t prevent one existing mayor, Andy Burnham, from describing the long-awaited and much-delayed announcements as being like a Christmas Day with no presents.

The last two years have shown Boris Johnson’s government to be ideologically malleable. They have abandoned the austerian, small-state principles that have defined the Conservative brand for the last four decades. Key policy proposals from Labour’s last two manifestos have been pilfered and implemented, albeit in heavily diluted and half-hearted form: corporation tax has been increased; public spending as a proportion of GDP is the highest it’s been in decades even discounting Covid support; policing and schools budgets are being restored to pre-austerity levels; the pre-Covid March 2020 budget promised debt-financed public investment and the highest capital spend since the 1970s; Labour’s “Green Industrial Revolution” has been promised, but at a tenth of the cost; parts of the Treasury have been moved to northern cities; the Treasury’s Green Book governing spending rules is being rewritten to weigh decisions in favour of poorer regions; R&D spending is being shifted outside the traditional “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London research institutes (another policy re-announced in the white paper); Sheffield Forgemasters has been nationalised; Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has became the poster boy for the new Tory electoral coalition having nationalised Tees Valley airport, spoken out against austerity, and promised a renaissance of skilled manufacturing jobs; and Johnson, who once allegedly told diplomats, “fuck business”, has pledged to use Brexit as an opportunity to push for relaxed state aid rules and end EU restrictions on domestic, local preference in public procurement (a reform that’s also included in the white paper).

All of this is in addition to more than £300bn of spending on coronavirus support.

But if the levelling up white paper can be taken as a signal, the brief era of government largesse looks to be coming to a close. In the wake of Partygate, Johnson is at the mercy of rightwing backbenchers who are less than enamoured with a policy programme derided as “neo-socialist… neo-Brownite social democracy” by Telegraph columnists demanding a “total reset”. An embattled Number 10 and the PM’s preferences for expensive grand projects now have little leverage against a Chancellor on manoeuvres, currying favour with more conventional Tories in the 1922 committee, and who seems reluctant to indulge Johnson’s profligacy any further.

If the vast inequalities that plague the UK are to be sincerely addressed then it seems it will take more than Michael Gove’s Leninist drive to overcome the perennial blockages of Treasury conservatism. Despite the Labour-lite spending plans and fiscal tweaks that the Tory Party have adopted over the last two years, in the face of declining living standards and post-pandemic economic crises the gaps between rich and poor are only likely to grow further. The Secretary of State may then find that “complete system change” necessitates more than Gramscian strategies and forms, and the embrace of some of the old Marxist’s radical content.

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