Thursday 15 July 2021

The Levelling Up Con

This was Boris Johnson's big agenda-driving speech. Long time Tory watchers will recall this is a theme Johnson is fond of, having visited it under a series of guises and slogans, but is there any substance or are we dealing with whispy rhetoric?

It would be easy to dismiss, and a set of words were duly delivered in the characteristic, haphazard style. There was a weird digression on the "loony left" of the 1980s, and an equally bizarre line on how focusing government investment outside of the South East doesn't mean cutting down their share of the pie. Someone's been reading the wrong people on the whys and wherefores of the Chesham and Amersham result. There was a plea for all local leaders to beat a path to his door as he raised the prospect of more devolution for England, acknowledging that the metro mayor model isn't suitable for all circumstances. This could take the shape of the repatriation of a range of powers by local authorities, with the caveat they'd have to pass a vaguely defined fiscal responsibility and democratic accountability test. In other words, don't expect more powers to pass to Salford and Preston any time soon. And apart from an awkward and bruising exchange about Tory racism and the England team, that was it. It took Johnson an hour to say what could have been said in five minutes.

This shouldn't be entirely dismissed as hot air. There is a project of Tory modernisation and large sums have been allocated to key projects, including the super fashionable gigafactories and more monies for research and design. But befitting the disjointed delivery, the programme matches the dilletantism of the Tory leader. This is a million miles from the thought-through approach to economic regeneration and addressing geographic disparities, and leaves some thinking 'levelling up' is an empty signifier, a soundbite for people to read what they wish into it. Much like the 'Northern Powerhouse' and 'Midlands Engine' rubbish of George Osborne's time in Number 11.

Peeling off the nonsense and clearing away the debris of waffle, two things remain. Because of the focus on infrastructure those immediately benefiting from the Treasury's largesse will be big construction firms and key manufacturers. There will be the trickle down of Keynesian multipliers, but while this is happening the Tories are ending furlough and taking £20/week off the poorest families in the country. Levelling up never means intervening to bail out our people. Here Tory spending is the means for reinforcing and concentrating economic power in the hands of their class, and with the numbers of vacancies growing. removing time-limited support is the stick the Tories think they need to get people out of slovenly habits picked up these last 18 months. The second? Sitting back and hoping for the best. Dole out a few more powers to councils, combined authorities, and metro mayors, give them a few million here and there to fix local transport issues (caused by the privatisation and fragmentation of networks ... by the Tories) and let them do the hard work of nurturing businesses and attracting investment. It just remains for Johnson to visit a new factory here, a new road there over the next couple of years and, he believes, the optics will do an election winning job.

This leaves plenty of hostages to fortune. There's plenty of scope for the government to be mired in cronyism and corruption scandals. Having more or less got away with the last round of NHS-related crookedness, and looking to bed it down further in in state institutions, it's almost as if Tory modernisation is purposely scattering a minefield for the party to later step on. With cracks and vulnerabilities starting to show, it's no means guaranteed softer Tory voters will carry on turning a blind eye. Who knows, perhaps these might be occasions for the opposition to do some opposition and actually lead public opinion for a change.

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1 comment:

David Walsh said...

And the Deputy V/Chancellor at Staffordshire Uni puts the nonsense of levelling up into the context of the needs of (your home patch) the average Stoke family in Comment Central;