Every political party relies on slogans to sell their policies and justify their decisions. Most vanish instantly into the void, but some are more special. These are the slogans that hold the others together. They are designed to sell not just a policy, but a whole programme for government. These are the “mantras”.
By now it is generally agreed that part of the UK’s current Conservative government electoral successes can be attributed to its promise to “level up” the nation. By now, the term has been used to the point of cliché. But at their annual conference in Manchester, the Conservatives had appeared to be about to add some meaningful detail to their strategy. Did they succeed?
In a decade of Conservatives mantras, we have heard “the big society”, “balance the books”, “long-term economic plan”, “strong and stable”, “get Brexit done”, and “build back better”. Much like these other mantras, “levelling up” is an attempt to communicate a whole policy agenda in a short phrase, while appealing to as many people as possible.
However, “levelling up” is proving to be a real problem for the government, because they find it so difficult to define and yet so important to deliver. This problem has been a central undercurrent at this year’s conference. Here are five things we’ve learned.
1. Some progress but the definition remains ambiguous
At the conference, we heard from both Michael Gove and Neil O'Brien, both recently installed at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities. They sang from the same hymn sheet with a four-part definition of levelling up: (1) “empower local leaders and communities”; (2) “raise living standards, especially where they are lower” by “growing the private sector”; (3) “spread opportunity” and “improve public services, especially where they are weaker”; (4) “give people the resources necessary to enhance the pride they feel in the place they live”.
While this takes us closer to an accepted definition of levelling up, it has really only organised the various ambiguities into four groups. What does it mean, for example, to “raise living standards”? Is this about poverty, health, wages, housing, neighbourhoods, crime or something else? That remains unclear.
2. The struggle over the definition is about departmental spending
In a fringe meeting at the conference, Conservative peer David Willetts explained how the meaning of levelling up may ultimately be decided at the Treasury. Ahead of the spending review, all the different departments of government are jostling for resources. All of them are framing their pitch in relation to “levelling up” in order to secure money from the Treasury. This means that every minister is trying to stretch “levelling up” in their own direction. This, in turn, suggests that the upcoming spending review may be as important as the long-anticipated levelling up white paper. The two may well appear in the same week.
3. Some form of devolution or local government reorganisation is likely to be involved
Gove’s speech re-emphasised the importance of local pride and local leadership in the levelling up agenda, making it clear that local delivery would be key. Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, declared his optimism that more powers and resources were on their way to local leaders.
The project report I have produced with colleagues, launched at the conference, outlined how the current problems in local and regional government will prevent the delivery of levelling up. There remain big questions about whether “strengthening local leadership” will resolve these. The way that funding is distributed needs to be addressed, as does the way devolution is delivered in a piecemeal deal-based way, often actually increasing geographical inequalities.
4. Money is going to be tight
Among the members of the Conservative party who attended the conference, one of the most common themes was taxation. There are big worries that levelling up will mean further tax increases. This is going down like a lead balloon on the doorstep in Conservative heartlands.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech justified some tax and spending increases, but more forcefully spoke of “fiscal responsibility”, calling back to the austerity of the George Osborne era. He argued that “the public finances must be put back on a sustainable footing”. This does not seem to be opening up space for the vast spending that levelling up may require.
5. No Conservative is in a rush to explain how levelling up should be measured
The ambiguities of levelling up are most problematic in the absence of any discernible measures of success. There are so many different ways to measure “living standards” that it will be very difficult for anyone to hold the government to account. It’s still possible that these measures will appear in time, but despite framing this as the levelling up conference, the party of government continues to avoid scrutiny. Without an understanding of how success should be measured, we will have to take the government’s word for it.
Overall, very little has changed in Boris Johnson’s rhetoric on levelling up since his speech in July. It is still about tackling geographical inequalities. And Johnson continues to hold on to the idea that deprived places can all be brought up to the level of prosperous places without any major redistributions of wealth. Though this seems far-fetched, we will await answers in the forthcoming spending review and levelling up white paper.