The longevity of Levelling Up…

Joshua Smith is a First year student at QUB studying International Relations and Politics, with a keen interest in political journalism

Boris Johnson’s pledge to tackle regional inequality may have had limited lasting impact. But Levelling Up vastly predates the current Conservative government. Almost certainly, the policy will outlast Sunak’s premiership too.

With a general election set for July 4th, the current ministration is approaching its end. But for one key government policy, delivery has barely begun. Last month’s installation of 100 chess boards across England- built with the promised £250,000 funding from Gove’s department- is one of the few flagship developments to emerge from the Conservative’s Levelling Up policy since its adoption in 2019.

Initially decreed to be a “New Deal for towns” in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, Levelling Up was intended to resolve many of the issues of regional inequality across the UK; a government white paper from 2022 claimed Levelling Up would create “a fundamental shift in how central and local government, the private sector and civil society operate”.

Instead, following inquiry, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reported that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities could not provide “any compelling examples of what had been delivered so far”. PAC chair, MP Dame Meg Hiller claimed Levelling Up’s expenditure was “absolutely astonishing” citing the government’s struggle “to even get the money out the door to begin with”.

With Parliament dissolved, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove leaving Westminster and Sunak projected to lose his majority, Levelling Up has become a fruitless endeavour, a far cry from Johnson’s ambitions in 2019. Even the legacy of the tokenistic chess board installations will be heavily diminished by the failure to expand the scheme into Scotland and Wales, detaching the project from Levelling Up’s original intentions of reducing regional inequality across the entirety of the UK.

Yet, despite the current rendition of Levelling Up ending, Labour’s legacy on regional inequality suggests that the policy will survive the turmoil and political upheaval of election campaigns. In fact, Labour’s association with the term Levelling Up predates Johnson’s claim over the policy by nearly a century.

As recounted by journalist and political historian David Torrance in his latest book ‘The Wild Men’, in December 1923, one month before Labour first took office led by Ramsey MacDonald, PM Stanley Baldwin received a letter from the first Lord of the Admiralty, Leo Amery. Discussing the “natural” party divide in British politics, Amery stated the divide was:

“…between constructive Conservatism on one side, with policy of Empire and national economic organisation, and on the other hand Labour Socialism with its ideas of levelling up by taxation, nationalism etc.”

It is clear Starmer intends to reinvoke Labour’s historic association with Levelling Up. The shadow Levelling Up Secretary position has repeatedly been held by prominent Labour MPs including Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy and Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner. Moreover, on the campaign trail, Starmer has attempted to draw demarcations between Labour and Conservative policy, in particular on the matter of Levelling Up. In Sussex, the Labour leader made a more partisan, but similar observation to Amery’s declaring, “all elections are a choice, and this one is a clear one: Levelling Up and the NHS with Labour. Or desperate chaos with the Tories.”

For any incoming government, Levelling Up will be a crisis desperately in need of rectifying. According to a report from the Think Tank Resolution Foundation, income inequality in the UK is highest among large European countries. Meanwhile, 9 million young voters have never worked in an economy with sustained average wage rises. To this end, UK companies have invested 20% less than their French and German counterparts since 2005. The Think Tank asserts that our economy is “defined by a decade and a half of stagnant incomes and a generation and a half of inequality” risking “our prosperity […] social fabric and democracy too”.

They are not alone in their assessment. In 2022, the Brown Commission, a report by Gordon Brown on the UK’s economic future, argued we are in a “vicious cycle […] what is bad for the economy is also bad for our democracy”.

Despite not referring to Levelling Up directly, Labour’s challenge to regional inequality is prevalent throughout the 2024 manifesto. On education, Labour intends to break “the pernicious links between background and success” by promising free breakfast clubs in primary schools, 3,500 more nurseries, and a revised curriculum. For the devolved regions, the party promises increased investment and the creation of the Council of the Nations and the Regions to dissipate the influence and the economic concentration that surrounds London and the Westminster bubble.

Polls may disagree over the size of the majority, but there is unanimous agreement that Labour will be the largest party following the election this July. With a legacy as old as the party and a plan to lead the policy into the next generation of politics, the longevity of Levelling Up is clear, regardless of the fate of the cohort of Conservatives who restored the phrase back into the public consciousness.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.