The problem for any political party with an ambition like levelling up is explaining the links between the moving parts of the policy. There is a tendency to segment these policies into lists to ‘sell’ to the public. The problem with lists, however, is they do not translate into effective policy. And the greater danger still is when the politicians start to believe that simply working down the list actually delivers their vision.
The art is to do both, which means identifying a small set of key policy levers which mesh the individual aims together and provide an overarching strategy, while adding some short-term but coherent gains for public consumption.
The Tories have made the cardinal error of drawing up too long a list, with little coordination and no real narrative gluing the bits together. They have 12 stated missions – some of which are means, some of which are ends. Some are platitudes – decreased inequality; some are simply impossible – London-style public transport everywhere; others have already gone into reverse – net pay and productivity and the education gap. Many are being undermined by their own national policies such as the new schools funding formula and the loss of the Åí20 benefit uplift.
The net effect is a lack of coherence. Overlaid onto this is a huge dose of political expediency and an equally incoherent national economic strategy.
So there is, by default, a vacuum for Labour to move into. There may be somewhere a grand strategy being hatched by Labour, and we have had a hint of this in Keir Starmer’s recent Liverpool speech on growth.
But to date, what is in the Labour shop window still feels like a shopping list (albeit a worthier and more sincere one) – jobs, town centres, connectivity, devolution, safety, a serious and creditable commitment to a green economy and supply chain. It therefore still feels vulnerable to the sort of criticism Ali Mira threw at Lisa Nandy on Radio 4 Any Questions back in July: “Where is the grand strategy which brings it all together?”
‘Listism’ stems from a failure to understand some of the basics of regeneration, which is a long haul, taking at least 20 to 30 years as Labour acknowledges. Regeneration needs substantial upfront devolved funding in the short to medium term before any fruits can be garnered. But in a modern economy the ultimate key and principal lever to levelling up is people and not things.
No growth, investment or increased productivity in a modern economy can happen without a skilled and educated workforce. Nor will an area attract inward investment or maintain the aggregate spending to sustain demand without it. Labour is right, devolution is critical. But it is not the panacea. A government will not solve the skills and education deficit without a robust national framework. And the hardest part, which neither party acknowledges, is that you cannot level up everywhere. Some areas, by definition, have to receive less attention in order to divert resources.
In the short to medium term too there are a number of key factors. First and critically we need a locally developed but nationally supported sector-led regeneration plan in order to focus skill development and infrastructure needs. This includes R&D and finance as well as connectivity. Some areas have begun to develop such plans to date but progress is sporadic and has to respond to structural underfunding in public services, top-down short-term competitive bidding and centrally directed ‘grands projects’ such as HS2 and freeports.
Second, Labour is right to make the green energy sector a key regeneration factor, vital in the path to decarbonisation. But the indigenous supply chain, involving new technologies in electrification, hydrogen, wave power, even insulation programmes, not only has to be developed but delivered by an educated workforce which won’t happen by magic.
Third, there are other sectors which require support and direction such as health, where there is growing demand and limited scope for job displacement via automation. Another is fintech (the source of enormous wealth and spending power), where the gravitational pull is to the south east, risking even greater regional disparity.
Fourth, if Labour is to maintain tight fiscal control, then all this needs funding. Public investment in the UK has been stifled by Treasury accounting convention. There is scope for freeing up millions of upfront investment for the long-term payback by capitalising skills training, taking housing investment out of the public sector net cash requirement and redirecting housing allowance to social housing construction. But that is for another discussion.
And finally, the realpolitik demands quick wins and the segmenting of the policy into sellable sound bites. Apart from being the basis for regeneration, sector-related skills training and early years education, especially linked to childcare, have immediate electoral appeal, not least to parents and grandparents. As for tangible benefits, revamping high streets is all well and good but it is not the panacea that the Tories naively believe. Neighbourhood renewal along the lines of the housing action areas of the 70s – tackling parking, boundary treatment, insulation, designing out crime, all linked to local skill development and re-establishing pride of place – will offer quick political wins. It is also the right thing to do.
Image credit: ClemRutter, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons