Levelling Up – a title without a policy (yet)?

3 Dec 2021

With the Levelling Up White Paper scheduled to be published within the next fortnight, DRD Associates Clemency Huggins and Ed Bowie take a look at how the Government and Opposition are approaching what could be the most significant new policy platform since the General Election.

Described as “one of the signature challenges of our time” (Andy Haldane), “the defining mission of this government” (Michael Gove), and “not a jam spreading operation… [a] win-win for the whole United Kingdom” (Boris Johnson), levelling up is the talk of towns across the country. The Conservatives won the last General Election with a landslide majority based on a manifesto promising to achieve greater equality across the counties, they committed billions of pounds in the Budget and Spending Review to do so, and levelling up is still the buzz word of the Government. It has to be if they want to stand a chance at the next election.

Good Intentions

Actions so far indicate that they mean what they say. There is now a whole Department dedicated to the cause, headed up by Michael Gove, a respected Minister known for getting things done. Further, the Prime Minister’s former adviser on levelling up and former think tank director, Neil O’Brien MP, has been given the specific responsibility of drawing up the White Paper.

The appointment of Andy Haldane to lead the levelling up taskforce further backs up this commitment to the cause, as an ex-Bank of England chief economist with a “personal passion” for addressing regional disparities. Reporting jointly to Gove and Johnson, he, too, has long been looking for the solution to the country’s economic divisions.

However whilst the right people are now in place, progress towards publishing the long awaited White Paper has been slow. Recent headlines have painted the Conservatives as the party of sleaze, greed and broken promises. So now is the opportune moment to bring back their credibility with a bold new policy platform to address regional inequality and boost opportunity for all.

What’s New?

After numerous headline-grabbing and costly policy announcements related to levelling up this year – the Towns Fund, transport improvements in the North (just don’t mention HS2) and the creatively named ‘levelling up fund’ –  the Chancellor has stated that there is no more money to dole out for new initiatives, meaning funding for other projects may need to be sourced from other budgets.

So, what is there left to announce? We know that this White Paper is superseding the paper on devolution, and Gove has spoken positively about mayoral combined authorities at a county level.  In the absence of fresh money and already-committed projects, it seems likely that levelling up will primarily involve passing a lot of finance, responsibility and powers to more devolved forms of government. The Prime Minister has supported this approach, and it makes sense to give those more attuned to the needs of their local areas the tools they need to improve their regions to ensure that “nowhere is left behind.”

Struggle City

The policy debates and penny-pinching may be the reason the White Paper was reportedly ripped up and started again from scratch.  To get things moving, there’s a new committee in town – the specially-formed Cabinet Committee on Levelling Up, chaired by Gove and deputy chair, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke MP. Designed to bring together the numerous departments with a stake in levelling up, and as a forum to thrash out policy and funding differences, this might at last achieve a consensus to allow the Government to publish a ground-breaking White Paper in time for the end of the year deadline it set itself.

A New Opposition Regime

The question ‘What does Levelling Up mean, and how do you go about achieving it?’ has justifiably been directed at the Conservatives in recent years.  But there’s little evidence – yet – that Labour is any closer than the government to being able to answer them.

However, that may well be about to change, with the appointment of Lisa Nandy as Shadow Levelling Up Secretary.  As MP for Wigan, Nandy occupies a special and, these days, rare position as a Labour MP that is able to represent and speak convincingly for Northern towns.

As a result, she’s perfectly placed to explain what Levelling Up should mean from a Labour perspective.  Boris may have done what he does best by parking his tank on Labour’s lawn, but by taking so long to fill in the gaps, he has gifted Labour an opportunity to paint its own picture of what it should mean ahead of the Conservatives.

Substance with Style

In painting that picture, Nandy should be careful not to fall back on Labour’s default of simply calling for more money.  Big ticket items on railways and broadband would of course be welcome in helping to regenerate economically deprived regions.  But the country needs a more fundamental rebalancing of wealth and skills, and two existing policy workstreams provide some hope on that front.

In the first, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ Buy British policy demonstrates the start of a reorientation in the way the state can exercise its purchasing power.  Britain’s world-class enterprises should be at the front of the queue when government goes to market for contracts, and doing so would help generate demand up and down the country.  The second is Angela Rayner’s Future of Work programme.  Reforms that would empower employers, unions and government to work together to boost skills and retraining incentives would have a lasting effect on productivity and innovation in the North.

In addition, Dan Jarvis MP’s initiative, ‘Plan for the North’ provides further scope for Nandy to build her “red bridge” and help recapture those fallen, traditionally Labour, seats.

Looking Fresh

Nandy should take those existing workstreams – and more – and demonstrate how they can play into the rebalancing agenda.  The difficulty of course is that it’s easier, and quicker, to cut the ribbon on a new train station before the next election.  For lasting change, however, the Labour Party should tackle the deeper issues at play.  Nandy looks like providing the fresh perspective the party needs to do just that.