There is so much talk, pre- and post-local election, of Levelling Up. The idea that this is the solution to the challenges of those areas ‘left behind’ by the growth seen by London and the South East over the last few decades leaves me cold. This is less about areas ‘left behind’ than it is about the forces of capitalism and neo-liberal economics playing out across a small island, forces which have served to concentrate wealth into the pockets of fewer and fewer people, forces that were unleashed through decades of ideology commencing in the 1980s and which have been compounding their effects ever since.
Both ‘L’s’ – levelling up and left behind – are the most excruciatingly paternalistic terms. As if talking about the child that could never keep up during school sports or was academically not as bright. Generally, such performance was put down to the natural order of things and therefore it was the way it was. Once the gaps became too marked, perhaps, special allowances could be made and extra support given – but not too much, for if someone was losing out, someone else was winning, and the winners know they can’t exist without the losers.
And so this imbalance persists and is tolerated, until such time as it becomes important to the winners to throw some crumbs in the direction of those less well off, ostensibly because it has become an important strategy to help them continue to win, as opposed to the alternative, that there is genuine altrusitic desire at the heart of their actions.
The evidence, spread over the course of more than a decade, is a deliberate policy of austerity. The numbers are pretty well evidenced now. A greater than 50% reduction in central government grants to local authorities and resultant service cuts. These cuts have been disproportionately focused in areas with higher levels of deprivation. People and places that were already struggling have found things getting even tougher. These are cuts that have compounded the effects of deindustrialisation which largely played out in the midlands and the north, together with many coastal communities which are – by definition – economically peripheral.
These cuts have not always been traceable to Conservative policy in the eyes of the public; it is the local authority, the local Job centre or other agency that has been at the front-line making cuts, in turn making it look like they are the organisations making these decisions. Communicating who is responsible for what – in terms of policy, finance, politics – is almost impossilbe, especially for those local authorities of the same political colour as the government making these decisions.
Again and again we see the benefits of neoliberal economics being privatised and the risks socialised; private citizens are now paying for the failures of the banking and finance, construction and motor industries to name but three, as Grenfell leaves flats unsellable, Carillion leaves pension-funds depleted and VW leaves diesel cars unuseable.
As the quote1 goes, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world they didn’t exit. It is in many respects remarkable that places that once would never have countenanced voting Conservative, indeed places that have been hardest hit first by deindustrialisation and then by austerity, now turn to the party that initiated these policies for solace.
Two further challenges emerge, themselves vestiges of this paternalistic, colonial mindset. The first is the notion of devolution, as paternalistic a term as the two Ls. This is the victorian, ‘Oliver Twist’ version of society: the have-nots forced to beg from those who have more. The other is a false but real competition between places, a concept high on the list of unhelpful economic ideas. When Gove and Johnson talk about people finding good work in their own towns they are conveniently forgetting that for decades the economic rhetoric has mirrored that of the individual: those with agency, entrepreneurialism, ‘get up and go’ will make things happen for themselves and thrive; those who have other, perhaps less tangible qualities may lose out accordingly. And so it is with places. Those that thrive do so at the expense of the others, which is the natural order of things in a competitive market place.
We see it with the Towns Fund and other competitive processes the government puts in place to allocate resources, ostensibly to the most needy, but in reality to those marginal seats they need to win – so-called pork-barrel politics. The simple solution here is a fair funding settlement that takes account of need; why do hundreds of local authorities have to waste staff time and budget putting together bids for funding which, in the grand scheme of things, represent little more than crumbs from the masters table and for which a majority will be unsuccessful.
Yet these are the towns and cities and communities where we live; do we not all have a right to a good life, wherever life’s lottery deems us to have been born?