The Levelling Up illusion

2nd April 2022

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, attempts a conjuring trick

So called independent think tanks are rarely the place to look for a radical critique of government policy.  The Institute for Government (IfG) styles itself as “the leading think tank working to make government more effective.”  It is mainly funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, hardly a hotbed of revolution.

The IfG has recently published a report considering the government’s flagship levelling up agenda, which Secretary of State, Michael Gove, attempted to give some credibility recently with the publication of a White Paper.  The White Paper contained 12 levelling up ‘missions’.  The government web site proclaims that delivering these missions will see them,

“…investing billions in our railways, rolling out next generation gigabit broadband and moving more government functions and civil servants out of London as part of investment across the country.”

The government have followed up with the UK Community Renewal Fund, the Levelling Up Fund, the designation of 109 local authority areas as Levelling Up for Culture Places.  It would appear that there is no end to how level British society can become!

Voices on the Left, which have cast doubt on just how redistributive a plan the White Paper really is, have been shouted down as doom mongers who have failed to get on board with the government’s vision.

The IfG hardly fall into the Left camp but have been critical nonetheless of the levelling up agenda reporting that,

“Most of the missions are poorly calibrated because they do not set the right objectives, provide clear direction, or show the right level of ambition.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement.  In its summary of the White Paper’s missions the IfG claims:

  • Five of the missions lack ambition
  • Three are too ambitions to be realistic
  • Four fail to define what success looks like
  • Two have too narrow a focus
  • One – on R&D spending – fails to line up with the overall policy objective

The IfG critique follows on from that of another think tank, the IPPR which noted that allocations in 2021 from the levelling-up fund added up to £32 per person in the north of England. That compares with a £413 per person drop in council spending on services during the austerity decade.   If levelling up is defined by leaving communities flat on their backs then Gove may be on the right track!

The long held suspicion that the levelling up rhetoric of the government is little more than a smokescreen was confirmed when millionaire Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, revealed his Spring Statement recently.  Sunak juggled with a combination of taxation measures and rebates, wrapped in language designed to suggest that the worse off were, in some way, being helped.

However, the net effect of the Chancellor’s measures mean that someone on around £27,500 a year will be about £360 worse off in the next financial year than in the current year. Someone earning around £40,000 will be getting on for £800 worse off.  On top of which the Office for Budget Responsibility are forecasting the biggest hit to real household disposable income per person since comparable records began in the 1950s.

With inflation set to hit 8% and energy bills set to rocket, with the cap on energy costs being increased by over 50%, there will be little if anything spare for those at the sharp end of the current cost of living crisis.

The economic upheaval of Brexit and the impact of the pandemic provide handy excuses for the Tories at the present time, even though the failings associated with both are largely of their own making. The current war in Ukraine adds further cover.  However, Tory economic mismanagement goes way back to 2010 and the austerity programme forced upon local communities, to pay for the gambling debts of the banks, caught out in the 2008 financial crash.

Whether the illusionist is Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak or even illusionist in chief, Boris Johnson, no amount of trickery can disguise the fact that the Tories continue to look after their own class at the expense of the rest.

Mass collective action to displace the Tories and demand a lasting change in society, which will address the real needs of the many, not the few is urgently required.  The current Labour leadership continues to let the Tories off the hook on the cost of living crisis by seeking to present a united front with the government over the issue of Ukraine but, as usual, that is a diversion. 

The real problem is systemic.  Capitalism is set up to defend the privileges of the rich and protect big business.  No amount of choosing between different ways of managing the system will avert its inevitable degeneration into crisis as class antagonisms come to the fore.  The Tories are fighting to defend the power and privilege of their class.  Only when the working class are conscious of the need to overturn the system, in favour of their class interest, will we see any real levelling up.  

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