Claire Harding: ‘Levelling up’ could be dead, but political neglect of London may continue

Claire Harding: ‘Levelling up’ could be dead, but political neglect of London may continue

Levelling up was, in some ways, the flagship policy of Boris Johnson’s government. It says a lot about how things have changed in the last two months that it has barely featured so far in the Conservative leadership debates, which have largely focused on tax, debt and energy. 

It seems likely at the very least that the language of levelling up will change, going the same way as many political buzzwords before. So the question is whether the ideas and impulses that sit behind it will remain. There are perhaps two parts to it: whether the idea of focusing on productivity and pride in “left behind” places continues to be a priority, and whether the anti-London sentiment which sits behind some versions of the agenda will change. 

Of course, Conservative leadership elections are about Conservative members, and general elections are about everyone. The levelling up agenda was never likely to play very well with Conservative members, but our next Prime Minister will be concerned about keeping hold of the “red wall” seats that were won in the last election. To do this the government will probably need to offer something more than tax cuts. So there will be pressure to keep some focus on projects which will secure local growth, perhaps in North Sea wind energy, as it ticks boxes for energy security and net zero as well. 

But focusing attention on electoral battlegrounds is not the same as economic policy. As Andy Haldane commented at Centre For London’s recent What Levelling Up Means For London event, levelling up was intended to be Britain’s localised but national economic policy, with different but complementary approaches to building productivity in different places. In the medium term, there will be pressure on our next leader to come up with an economic plan that deals with Britain’s chronic productivity problems and recently stalling growth – and this may see a return to a more nationalised approach to economic planning, for better or for worse. 

Unfortunately for London and for Londoners, the outlook for our city seems both less contingent and more gloomy. London simply isn’t an electoral battleground at the moment and this won’t change until at least the next general election. The May local election results – although complex overall – seem to have strengthened the view that there’s not much point in either main party making a major effort in the capital because so much of the city votes Labour. There aren’t many national, high-profile politicians calling for investment in London business or infrastructure, or for support for London’s worst off.  

At Centre for London we’re worried about this. Making things worse in London hurts Londoners but it also hurts the whole country, as London pays so much in tax and is the preferred destination for much of the international investment we desperately need post-Brexit. In the long term, raising productivity elsewhere would help address this imbalance, but we are not there yet, and punishing London won’t get us there any faster.

Claire Harding is Research Director at think tank Centre for London. Follow Centre For London on Twitter and read more of its work on “levelling up” here. Image from cover of No. 10 by Jack Brown.

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