Levelling up before the blue wall crashes down

The Conservative government made a commitment to levelling-up, but who is this really benefitting?

The slogan ‘levelling-up’ initially came into play during the UK’s general election in 2019, contributing to the Conservative party, under Boris Johnson, winning a landslide victory.

They secured 365 seats, to Labour’s 203, greatly due to the demolition of the ‘red wall’. This term refers to the group of typically Labour supporting seats across the North of England. These key seats are usually a safe bet for the party, but the 2019 election saw the red wall painted a Conservative shade of blue as the Conservative party took 54 previously Labour held seats.

Three years later, making a strong statement during his very first Prime Minister’s Questions in October 2022, Rishi Sunak pledged to continue with this policy:

“I can give my cast-iron commitment to levelling up, particularly in Yorkshire”.

But who is levelling up really benefitting? Might that wall soon be painted a Labour shade of red once again?

What is levelling up?

Levelling up is a broad term referring to a commitment to close the economic and social disparities between different regions in the UK. This typically means working to close the long standing gap between the North and the South, in terms of investment, access to opportunities, access to public services, and more.

Statistically we can see this is a deep rooted and serious issue. In 2013, the average life expectancy for a baby born in the North-west of England is 2 to 3 years shorter than for a baby born in the South-east.

The Office of National Statistics also revealed that year that the unemployment rate in the North East was 2.5% higher than the average for England as a whole. Other statistics, such as those on crime rates and levels of education, also reflected this same trend.

It is clear that levelling up is required. In 2020 while Rishi Sunak was chancellor the Levelling Up Fund, worth £4.8 billion, was created. Alongside this, HM Treasury released a prospectus outlining how this fund would be used, and where. They also outlined the process by which areas of the UK could make bids to receive part of the funding.

On the 7th January 2023, Rishi Sunak announced a mini-reshuffle of his cabinet. The relatively new position of levelling-up secretary has again gone to cabinet minister Michael Gove. In February 2022, he laid out a series of goals, such as reducing the education gap, reducing levels of crime and reducing inequalities in the UK, that would help towards the commitment to levelling up.

How far have the government achieved this?

The allocation of the Levelling Up fund was decided based upon the aim to create economic growth, with a focus on transport connections, rather than based on financial need as many had presumed. There is also speculation that the fund was not allocated fairly, but instead using a political agenda.

The Green Party publicised in January 2020 that  only half of the 80 successful bids for the levelling up fund are in the 100 most deprived areas of the country. Meanwhile, 143 of 151 local authority areas have had real term cuts in the last few years. They also emphasised how only 5% of the money had been received 15 months after the first allocations were made.

Moreover, the Labour Party have been quick to criticise the government as the money that has been received has been overwhelmingly outweighed by cuts to funding for local authorities. The Institute for Government have stated that the most deprived areas have been worst affected by these funding cuts as they are the most reliant on government funding.  

Whilst some progress has arguably been made, the data certainly suggests that the levelling up project has not yet gone very far towards reducing regional disparities.

Who is ‘levelling up’ really benefitting?

Leader of the opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, called out Rishi Sunak for not being sincere in his commitment to reducing inequalities. He referenced the controversial non-dom tax status which allows many wealthy people to avoid large sums of tax every year.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that scrapping this policy could generate around £3 billion per year. Despite this, the conservative party have retained the policy.

Additionally, many were aggrieved to learn that during his time as chancellor, Sunak’s wife previously held non-dom tax status.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, claimed:

“The Government currently allows very rich people to live here but register abroad for tax purposes (…) Why doesn’t he (Rishi Sunak) put his… money where his mouth is and get rid of it?”

“He (Rishi Sunak) pretends he’s on the side of working people”.

Rishi Sunak responded:

“My record is clear, when times are difficult in this country I will always protect the most vulnerable, that is the values of our compassionate party. We did it in Covid and we will do that again”.

Concerning claims that levelling-up has been used as part of a political agenda, the Reality Check Team at the BBC looked into the statistics on the awarded funds. Analysing the latest round of funding, as of January 2023, they found that projects in Tory constituencies were awarded £1.21 billion, and Labour constituencies were awarded just £471 million.

It is just 18 months until the next General Election, and studies are reporting that the conservatives would currently win just 45 seats, which is less than is predicted for the SNP. Opinion polls for the current conservative government are low, and massive conservative party losses are predicted on the horizon.

This raises questions on whether the levelling-up project is really aiming to tackle disparities, or whether the funds are being directed into constituencies where the conservatives want opinion ratings to remain on their side.

Do the governments’ priorities lie with the people of Britain, or with ensuring political success? Might the aims of levelling-up be achieved, or might the blue wall turn red once again?

Image by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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