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In the attempt to capture the defining difference between the philosophical outlook of the Labour and Conservative party, I once wrote that nobody ever joined the Tory party to improve the lives of the poor. I promptly received a note from an outraged correspondent who said simply “I did”. That correspondent, that Tory warrior for social justice, was Michael Gove — and he is now the man in charge of his mission.
Mr Gove won the consolation prize in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle last week of becoming the minister on whom the Government’s fortunes now rest. There is desperation in the appointment of Mr Gove as the Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Calling for the only Cabinet minister with any policy imagination is an admission that “levelling up” remains an ill-defined project. Mr Gove, remember, is the man who scuppered Mr Johnson’s first attempt to become prime minister in 2016. It is quite the gamble for Mr Johnson, not a man given to forgiveness, to place his fate in the hands of a rival.
There is also something depressing about the creation of a Department for Levelling Up. Departmental names should be subject matters and disciplines, not government slogans. It would be like changing the Foreign Office to the Department for Global Britain or the Treasury to the Department for Build Back Better. Maybe we should call it the Levelling Up Department (LUD) and all the ministers Luddites. That might convey something of the problem Mr Gove has on his hands.
Mr Gove has brought in the estimable Andy Haldane, the former chief economist at the Bank of England, to supply the ideas. We ought not to doubt their commitment. Doubting their capacity, though, is another matter.
So far levelling up has been defined in the most minimal way possible — as a channel for money to travel northwards from London. Earlier this year the Government announced a £4.8 billion levelling-up fund for regeneration and local transport. This is pork-barrel politics rather than a genuine mission.
Mr Gove’s department is currently running a Towns Fund and a Community Renewal Fund which disbursed £3.6 million to 45 towns, 40 of which, coincidentally enough, had Tory MPs. Anyone who has been to Richmond in North Yorkshire, one of the towns to benefit, might like to compare it to the most deprived parts of London. But Richmond happens to be the constituency represented by the Chancellor.
Real levelling up, though, is not just about places, it is about the people who live in places. If Mr Gove has the courage to set targets on educational attainment, university entrance, life expectancy, morbidity, and pay and progression, then we would know he was serious about levelling up. This would be an attempt to change the outcomes of lives, not just applying a lick of paint to the town centre. So far, the Government appears to have no idea what levelling up means beyond the desire to tarmac roads, build bridges and erect a hanging basket on the high street. There is nothing wrong with any of these things but they don’t do much to make the nation equal. And that is what Mr Gove has let himself in for. He might as well describe his new job as the minister for equality.
If the Government needs any tuition on how hard this is, it should study the last administration that had the same objective. The 1998 New Deal for Communities and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal channelled £4 billion of public money into similar areas for similar reasons. The evidence of the Brexit campaign in which these places voted emphatically to leave the EU on the grounds that nobody ever paid attention to them suggests that it did not work.
It would be wrong to say nothing was achieved. Public buildings were rebuilt and public spaces spruced up. But regional productivity hardly changed and the growth rates between regions didn’t shift much. Britain remains a nation heavily dependent on the tax revenues from the enterprising capital.
The one great success story of the Labour years was in the cities — Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle — and that was due, in no small measure, to smart local government. It is therefore counter-productive to see that “local government” has been stripped out of the new name given to Mr Gove’s department. There is no reason to suppose that a whole nation can be changed from one department in Whitehall, no matter what its name.