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Up north, Gove quotes Engels and criticises our broken economic model – but he’s stuck for solutions

At the annual Convention of the North, the Levelling Up Secretary was big on rhetoric but short on substance.

By Jonny Ball

The Convention of the North in Manchester yesterday (25 January) was an expertly choreographed piece of political theatre. Think Comic Con for people who know what LEP stands for (that’s Local Enterprise Partnership, in case you didn’t). Instead of Marvel Avengers costumes, people enthuse about devolution and grumble about London and the south-east. This writer is no exception.

Predictably, for a Wednesday morning journey to a conference about fostering a northern economic renaissance, the train between Liverpool and Manchester is cancelled. No matter – any seasoned northern, west-to-east traveller knows to leave an ample cushion before any festivities begin.

The BBC journalist Evan Davis is hosting. He introduces Bev Craig, the leader of Manchester City Council. We’re only minutes into the day and we’ve heard our first promise “not to go on about trains”. It’s a difficult promise to keep when so much physical infrastructure in this region is coming apart at the seams. Craig is an impressive city leader with a clear grasp of her brief, and Manchester’s politicians have long been able to spin a positive yarn about their city. Greater Manchester is the poster child of the devolution initiated by George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project (remember that?), but today the watchword is “levelling up”, or as No 10 would apparently prefer, “gauging up” or “enhancing communities”. 

Craig strikes a note of hopefulness that feels forced given the state of regional imbalances and the constant stream of bogus reassurances from Westminster. She gives us some words to think about throughout the day, including optimism, opportunity, power and hope.

But some are feeling increasingly hopeless. The divergences between north and south are now said to be as severe as those between the post-communist east and west Germany upon the country’s unification. When politicians at events like this promise us “jam tomorrow”, we are reminded of the Soviet leaders who heralded the dawn of communist abundance while people waited in bread queues. Coinciding with the convention is the release of a report that says the north of England would rank second worst for public and private investment if it were a country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (coming in just before Greece).

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Germany crops up a lot in regional equality discussions. The auditorium is played a video message from the country’s minister for east Germany and equivalent living standards. The industrial giant is held up as an example of good practice when it comes to closing wealth, health and productivity gaps. Successive governments there have been committed to the cause, and German regions have been furnished with significantly more resources and decentralised levers of power than ours.

Before the panels start, we’re given more abstract nouns to contemplate: “trust”, “collaboration” and “shared objectives”. But it’s hard to get on board when last week’s announcement of levelling-up funding included the prime minister’s affluent constituency of Richmond, while more deprived areas were neglected. Even forgiving the allocation of the fund, its overall value is rapidly being diminished by sky-high inflation. These slices of Whitehall largesse nowhere near compensate for over a decade of cuts to council budgets.

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Despite the gloom, and not a moment too soon, the tieless King of the North Andy Burnham rushes the stage to a dance soundtrack, trying a bit of call and response with the audience of reticent delegates. Perhaps “how are we doing, Manchester?!” got a better reaction at his recent warehouse DJ battle with Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the Liverpool City Region.

Even this was still a warm-up for the main event. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up needs no introduction, but Davis gives him one anyway. Comrade Michael Gove, known for quoting the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and keeping a picture of Lenin at his desk, stays true to form and begins with a line from Engels. He critiques a broken economic model. He condemns “well-connected and unproductive elites”. He bemoans our “unbalanced economy” and the “decline in manufacturing”. He talks about “popular resistance”. His vision of government is based on “an active state” not an “absent state”.

And he lists a string of recent Tory achievements: changes to research and development funding, reformed Arts Council grants, financial regulations, corporate tax deductions and the relocation of civil service jobs. Gove has to be interrupted and hurried along when chuckles spread through the room and the speech veers into a discussion of anti-social behaviour, graffiti, the broken windows theory of policing and nitrous oxide balloons. Who said levelling up was an everything and nothing policy

You get the feeling the man is doing his best. Several Labour mayors have praised his abilities and his commitment. His problem is that for all his solid performances and his clear diagnoses, his verbosity is falling flat in communities where life is getting measurably harder, households budgets are increasingly squeezed and inequalities are expanding fast. Gove is correct in his analysis of the country’s ills, but he’s also actively exacerbated many of them by participating in governments that have hollowed out state capacity. The low-wage, low-skill, low-investment, low-productivity economy he criticises is precisely of his party’s own creation. Perhaps he has simply realised his error too late. His Labour equivalent, Lisa Nandy, will certainly be hoping so. “We can’t go on like this,” she later tells the conference.

While the government’s response to geographical inequalities remains confined to insubstantial, piecemeal funding pots, speeches like Gove’s will only ever be political theatre. He will simply be performing the regional devolution guru, respected by some and loathed by others, the pantomime villain with all the answers. If only we could actually implement them.

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]

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