The Guardian view on the failure of Tory levelling up: Labour must learn the lessons | Editorial

“Everyone knows that talent and energy and enthusiasm and flair are evenly spread across the country … It is opportunity that is not and it is the mission of this government to unite and level up the whole UK.” Thus Boris Johnson, in the summer of 2021, outlined how his flagship policy would help the country to recover from the pandemic “like a coiled spring”.

The familiar rhetorical flourish may trigger unhappy flashbacks to a period of politics conducted in the style of Mr Johnson’s former Daily Telegraph column. But Sir Keir Starmer was accurate – if opportunistic – last week in saying that much of the analysis behind levelling up was “good”. Brexit itself was a disastrous act of economic self-harm. But the seismic shock it delivered to the body politic opened up a necessary debate about regional inequality in post-industrial Britain. Sadly, Sir Keir was also right to point to the abject inability of Mr Johnson’s government, or its successors, to do anything meaningful about it.

This week’s Guardian report card on the 12 missions in the levelling up white paper records a litany of failure, along with missed opportunities to be more ambitious. Divergence in life expectancy between the north and the rest of England has deepened rather than diminished, partly as a result of the differential impact of Covid. Economic output has bounced back post-pandemic in London, but the north and Midlands continue to suffer from chronic productivity problems. The mission to increase access to high-quality skills training and qualifications has been comprehensively undermined by a failure to invest in further education colleges. Only when it came to the cost-free devolution of powers to local governments and the new mayoral combined authorities was decent progress made.

Understandably, Labour is keen to distance itself from a discredited project. Launching the party’s local election campaign last week, Sir Keir and his deputy, Angela Rayner, spoke instead of “powering up” Britain – a slightly cumbersome nod to their own “full-fat” devolution plans. These are undoubtedly good as far as they go, promising greater control over wider policy areas to more regions. The pork barrel politics and Hunger Games bidding contests that defined Tory levelling up were cynical, insulting and inefficient. Labour’s determination that, as far as possible, decision-making power should be funnelled downwards is therefore welcome. But if the redistribution of power is to be truly transformative, it will need to be accompanied by serious money.

As section 114 bankruptcy notices proliferate across the country, a cross-party committee of MPs recently sounded the alarm over the “severe crisis and financial distress” being faced by local authorities starved of cash. The more deprived the area, the more acute the problems, and the deeper the spiral of decline in public services. Yet, last week, Sir Keir channelled his inner Theresa May, arguing there was “no magic money tree” to address a shortfall that will hobble any attempt to tackle regional inequality.

If Labour’s leader believes this position can happily coexist alongside a successful “powering up” agenda, he may be guilty of indulging in his own magical thinking. In the absence of adequate funding, further devolution would begin to look less like local empowerment and more like Westminster passing the buck. After the huge disappointment of Tory levelling up, a Labour government will need to do more than hand over responsibilities without the resources to match the task in hand.

The Guardian

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