Levelling up: Michael Gove’s shrill blitz at odds with reality: Ian McConnell

THERE is much which really grates in the Conservative Government’s “levelling up” talk – the volume of which has been ramped up again this week by the Johnson administration to reach an ear-piercing crescendo.

Reflecting on why the spouting of the “levelling up” slogan from the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson is just so annoying, two aspects immediately spring to mind.

The first is that yawning gulf between the Tory pledges on this front and the reality of what the Conservatives are doing currently and have engaged in since 2010 (as well as in past times).

The second is another familiar theme with the Johnson administration when it comes to economic and societal matters – hot air and a lamentable lack of substance.

This is a UK Government which paints a picture that it is trying to help ordinary people in communities which have suffered from the way the economy has developed.

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When you look at the reality of what is actually happening though, life is becoming far tougher for such people, with the UK in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis and the Johnson administration about to hammer struggling households further with a hike in national insurance.

The Conservatives have been warned by many about the detrimental impact of their planned tax grab on a UK economy which from long before the pandemic to the current moment has looked in anything but great shape, whatever an ebullient Mr Gove and his Cabinet colleagues might think.

The national insurance rise has been dressed up as a “health and social care levy”. However, it is essentially a tax hike. The dressing up of a particular tax rise as being earmarked for spending on a specific area continues to look like mere spin. Money to spend on health and social care does not need to come from struggling households and the likes of hard-pressed small businesses through this national insurance rise.

The “levy” is a £12 billion per annum tax grab overall, including a hike in dividend tax. A very large amount of money will be taken out of already stretched household budgets and this will have a detrimental impact on consumer spending and the broader economy.

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Furthermore, as the Conservatives bang on about “levelling up”, it is worth bearing in mind that many communities that are in most need of assistance, amid the sloganeering, are the very same ones that have been laid low by the Tory austerity drive launched in 2010. The cumulative impact of the awful squeeze on welfare spending continues to take a very heavy toll indeed on such communities, with this effect surely overshadowing dramatically the “levelling up” window-dressing measures.

Mr Gove has been making a big song and dance this week about “levelling up”. This is no surprise. He even has the slogan in his job title. Mr Gove is Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities these days.

Among the measures trumpeted most loudly in this week’s “levelling up” publicity blitz has been the announcement of £100 million of “new government funding” for “innovation accelerators” centred on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow City Region.

While something is better than nothing, it is important to recognise that this is a relatively small amount of money, split across three large areas. A £100m fund but a £12bn per annum tax grab – that really says it all.

Nevertheless (and of course), that is not stopping the UK Government from waxing lyrical.

It declared this week: “These clusters of innovation will see local businesses and researchers in these areas backed by £100 million of new government funding to turbo-charge local growth, learning from the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)-Greater Boston and Stanford-Silicon Valley models.”

Glasgow, and the other areas, no doubt have great expertise in various fields of innovation. Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, this week said the UK Government announcement “comes as an appropriate acknowledgement of the sheer scale and quality of both our academic research and the relationships that have been built with industry”. And government funding is always welcome.

However, it seems highly unlikely that £100m of government money is going to “turbo-charge growth” in these three areas. It is the innovators themselves who are and will continue to be behind success stories, not Mr Gove et al.

As you might expect, such considerations have certainly not been taking the wind out of Mr Gove’s sails this week as the Johnson administration has unveiled a “levelling up plan” which it says will “transform” the UK.

The UK Government proclaimed there would be “bold national levelling up missions, given status in law”, which it says will “shift government focus and resources to Britain’s forgotten communities throughout [the] 2020s”.

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Mr Gove declared: “The United Kingdom is an unparalleled success story. We have one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic economies. Ours is the world’s most spoken language. We have produced more Nobel Prize winners than any country other than America.

“But not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success. For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine. Levelling up and this white paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery.”

And this brings us to the second point of irritation.

Mr Gove’s statement is full of hot air. “Unparalleled success story” is a truly, truly bizarre assessment of the UK’s performance under the Tories since 2010. Many would argue with much justification that the reality is quite the opposite, with austerity having weighed so heavily on growth following the global financial crisis and the Brexit fiasco doing much damage now and inevitably going to be a major brake on the economy and prosperity for years and decades.

Then we have “jet firing on only one engine” and “postcode lottery”. Cliché time.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had this to say of the “levelling up” policies laid out by the Conservatives this week: “It’s re-hashed money, it’s re-hashed announcements and it’s a pretty desperate attempt by a beleaguered Westminster Government and an utterly discredited Prime Minister to try and divert people’s attention and I think it might take more than that to succeed.”

We must not forget that many of the communities Mr Gove is talking about were devastated by the dismantling of much of the country’s heavy industry initiated by Margaret Thatcher.

These communities have since been absolutely blighted by the savage Tory welfare cuts which got under way in grim style after David Cameron became prime minister and George Osborne was appointed as chancellor in 2010.

Then people in these communities were told by Tory Brexiters that the European Union was the problem. We got Brexit, and now everyone is paying the price for that.

Households in these communities, and across the UK, are now facing a cost-of-living crisis. And there is a tax hike pending which will hammer households and small businesses.

Against this backdrop, the “levelling up” spin really sticks in the craw.

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