Post-pandemic priorities: How Levelling-Up can be more than just a slogan

Today’s release of the White Paper on rail reform is the latest example of the Government’s Levelling-Up paranoia, whereby any and every announcement is somehow viewed through the prism of regenerating local economies. In this blog, Ed Bowie, Associate at DRD Partnership, explores what the Government needs to do to actually deliver results for local communities – and how Levelling-Up can be more than just a slogan.

Boris Johnson’s entire career has been built on one thing. No – it’s not his loose grasp of the truth, or his ability to argue both sides of the same argument, as his detractors would have it. Indeed, that is the irony of the Prime Minister’s talent. Boris Johnson’s career has been built on his innate ability to know what ‘Middle Britain’ is thinking. It’s his ability to speak right over the top of the Westminster Bubble that makes him such a skilled politician. And it’s a skill that Keir Starmer has yet to demonstrate he possesses, going for photoshops as he did at John Lewis while pushing the No. 10 redecorations line, as if that was what the voters of Hartlepool cared about.

And it is this ability to know what really matters that No. 10 will be relying on as the Prime Minister pushes the Go button on the country’s reset. Last week’s Queen’s Speech was notably light on substantive policy initiatives, but that is a deliberate strategy by the Tories. The Prime Minister wants and needs space in the coming years to allow his Government to pivot as and when needed, including to a possible early General Election. If there is one overarching narrative, however, it is Levelling-Up, which will provide a roadmap and underpin much of the Government’s direction of travel.

Speeding-Up the Levelling-Up

In that regard the agenda received a welcome boost with the recent appointment of Neil O’Brien MP as the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor on Levelling-Up. O’Brien is well-known in Whitehall, having previously been the Director of Policy Exchange and then Special Adviser to Theresa May in No.10 and George Osborne in No. 11. A Levelling-Up taskforce that has just been established will be reporting to him in preparation of a White Paper on the topic to be published later this year.

On the one hand, O’Brien’s job is well-and-truly already in motion. Downing Street will readily point to this week’s £830 million investment to transform high streets, the £4.8 billion Levelling-Up fund in this year’s budget and the establishment of Free Ports as tangible examples of policy delivery for those ‘left behind’ as those in Westminster would pejoratively put it. Even today’s White Paper on railways was asserted to be a key plank in the agenda: it seems that every policy initiative from now on will be shoehorned into Levelling-Up.

The critique from both outside and within government that Levelling-Up is a meaningless political slogan is therefore a little hard to follow. Quite apart from the distraction of a pandemic, it is not too difficult to discern where the Government’s overall political focus is. Apart from anything else, the political imperative on the Conservative Party to retain the ‘Red Wall’ seats means it is obvious that the Government will be focusing (notwithstanding Ministers’ poor showing at the BEIS Select Committee this week) its efforts on the plight of voters in those constituencies.

But not before time

On the other hand, it’s a sad reflection of this country’s political malaise that the government is looking for, and in some quarters is receiving, credit for having a policy focus on those who have been historically under-served by the political establishment. Having been in government for so long, those ‘forgotten’ by Westminster will by definition have been forgotten by the Conservatives themselves since 2010.

Therefore, any focus on increasing productivity, regenerating deprived regions, or making sure that public services actually deliver for people is hardly worthy of a pat on the back. But making life more difficult for the Tories is that it is the latter – making sure that public services deliver – that is both an integral element of the policy ‘solutions’ and the key to getting any policy out the door at all. And for that reason, the Prime Minister’s chances of success are limited.

The Cummings effect

It all comes down to He Who Must Not Be Named. Dominic Cummings was the singular figure in No. 10 who understood the limits of the state – not as a political project or from an ideological perspective, but from a machinery of government perspective. To achieve any of the Levelling-Up agenda, Cummings understood that the challenge was not in designing a policy and pleasing certain stakeholders; it was in harnessing the power and influence of the state to actually effect change for people on the ground. It is about reforming how the civil service works – not by bringing in private contractors and muddying conflicts of interest, or by shifting civil service roles out of London as was re-announced this week (again as part of a Levelling-Up initiative, apparently). It is about simplifying and defining what ‘success’ looks like and limiting departmental turf warfare by promoting those who are good, not just those who stifled their rival department’s good idea.

The rebirth of the No. 10 Delivery Unit is a good start in that regard, as would be deploying Michael Gove – the Government’s single most competent remaining asset in knowing which levers to pull and when – to work from within the Cabinet Office to reform civil service output. Getting the foundations of public service delivery right will, in turn, mean that public services can perform on the ground in those Red Wall seats. Without achieving the former, the latter is impossible.

The issue for this Prime Minister is that he knows what ‘Middle Britain’ wants – but to date he has not yet demonstrated that he knows how to deliver it.

Photo credit: © Jonathan McHugh 2020

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