Every political party relies on slogans to sell its policies and justify its decisions. Most immediately disappear into the void, but some are more special. These are the slogans that bind others. They are designed to sell not just a policy, but an entire program to the government. These are “mantras”.
Until now it is generally believed that part of the electoral successes of Britain’s current Conservative government can be attributed to its promise to “level up” the nation. Until now, the term has been used to the point of cliché. But at their annual convention in Manchester, the Conservatives were about to add some meaningful details to their strategy. Did they succeed?
In a decade of conservative chants, we’ve heard “big society”, “balance the books”, “long-term economic planning”, “strong and stable”, “Brexit done”, and “build back better”. Like these other mantras, “leveling up” is an attempt to communicate an entire policy agenda in one concise phrase, while attracting as many people as possible.
However, “flattening” is proving to be a real problem for the government, as 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 learned.
1. Some progress but the definition remains unclear
At the conference, we heard from both Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien, both recently established in the Leveling Up, Housing and Communities division. He sang from a single hymn that contained a four-part definition of leveling: (1) “empowering local leaders and communities”; (2) “raise the standard of living, especially where they are low”, by “increasing the private sector”; (3) “dissemination of opportunity” and “improvement of public services, especially where they are vulnerable”; (4) “Give people the resources they need to feel proud of the place they live in”.
While this gets us closer to an accepted definition of flattening, it has actually organized the various ambiguities into just four groups. For example, what does it mean to “raise the standard of living”? Is it about poverty, health, wages, housing, neighborhoods, crime or something else? It remains unclear.
2. The struggle over definition is about departmental expenditure
In a fringe meeting at the conference, Conservative colleague David Willetts explained how the meaning of the level may eventually be decided in the Treasury. Before reviewing the expenditure, all the departments of the government are struggling for resources. All of them are making their pitch regarding “leveling up” to secure money from the Treasury. This means that each minister is trying to “raise the level” in his or her own direction. This, in turn, suggests that an upcoming spending review could be as important as leveling up the long-anticipated white paper. Both may well be visible in the same week.
3. Any transfer or reorganization of the local government is likely to involve
Gove’s speech re-emphasized the importance of local pride and local leadership in leveling the agenda, making it clear that local delivery would be key. The Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, declared his optimism that local leaders had more powers and resources.
The project report I prepared with my colleagues, launched at the conference, outlines how current local and regional government problems will hinder the delivery of Level Up. Big questions remain about whether “strengthening local leadership” will solve these. The way in which funding is distributed needs to be addressed, as the way in which it is distributed in a piecemeal deal-based manner often actually exacerbates geographic disparities.
4. Money is going to be tight
Among the Conservative Party members attending the convention, one of the most common topics was taxation. There are major concerns that leveling up will mean further increases in taxes. It’s going down like a lead balloon at the door in the Conservative heartlands.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech justified some tax and spending increases, but spoke more strongly of “fiscal responsibility”, recalling the austerity of the George Osborne era. He argued that “public finance should be held back on a permanent basis”. It doesn’t seem like it’s opening up room for the huge expense that might be needed.
5. No conservative is in a hurry to explain how collimation should be measured
The ambiguity of leveling is most problematic in the absence of any clear measure of success. There are so many different ways of measuring “standard of living” that it would be very difficult for anyone to answer to the government. It is still possible that these measures will appear in time, but despite framing it as a leveling convention, the government’s party is evading scrutiny. Without an understanding of how success should be measured, we have to listen to the government for it.
Overall, little has changed in the rhetoric on reconciliation since Boris Johnson’s speech in July. It is still about tackling geographic disparities. And Johnson holds to the idea that disadvantaged places can be brought down to the level of affluent places without any major redistribution of wealth. While this sounds far-fetched, we will await a reply in the upcoming spending review and leveling up white paper.