Nick Bowes: Which Beatles album will the ‘levelling up’ white paper be?

Nick Bowes: Which Beatles album will the ‘levelling up’ white paper be?

If the government’s “levelling up” white paper were a Beatles album which one would it be? For a few weeks I’ve been fixated by the Beatles’ Get Back documentary, while at the same time my head is flooded by reports of Whitehall friction as the white paper is finalised.

Watching the creative tensions at the heart of the world’s biggest ever band, and how Paul McCartney labours – perhaps too hard on occasions – to provide some leadership is fascinating. How its members spark off each other and the seemingly casual way much-loved songs are churned out is illuminating. On the flip side, ego, pride and disagreement are on show – the seeds of the final fracturing a few months later.

In some ways, the much-anticipated white paper is, to the world of public policy geeks and politicos, the closest we get to the fevered atmosphere before a global megastar’s new album is released. Expectations are sky high, so it will be hard to satisfy everyone and avoid disappointment. Michael Gove is McCartney – driving it forward, keeping it on track and the creative juices flowing. Rishi Sunak is Lennon – in the room, but with lukewarm interest and the niggling fear that he’s there to wreck the whole thing from the inside. I’ll leave others to decide who George and Ringo are.

I don’t envy Gove. While most people agree it sounds like a good thing, levelling up is a concept with no clear definition. By meaning everything to everyone it has enabled the government to present just about anything as being part of it. That includes ministerial announcements on education, economic development and transport, plus the billions handed out across the country from the Towns Fund and the Levelling Up Fund.

A perception that some very deprived parts of the country have missed out on funding while more prosperous areas have benefitted – fuelled by claims of bias in favour of Conservative-voting areas – has led to accusations of pork barrel politics. At the same time there hasn’t been much evidence of getting to grips with the causes of the country’s deep and entrenched geographical inequalities or the long-term financial commitment needed to address the scale of the problem.

As a result much depends on the white paper laying out a clear roadmap. And if Gove’s job wasn’t already big enough there are the choppy waters the government finds itself in to deal with. A Prime Minister backed up against the wall is hardly conducive to long-term policy making. Day-to-day survival is the name of the game, leading to a focus on the tactical. Reports suggest Boris Johnson’s plan to regain the initiative, known as Operation Red Meat, includes a slug of 24-hour media friendly stories designed to shift attention from his government’s troubles.

Apparently, this includes the launch of the white paper. Some have suggested it is the government’s best opportunity for a relaunch. But loading so much short-term political responsibility on to it risks diverting it from the long-term focus needed. Instead, there will be an urge to pack it full of populist announcements with shiny baubles handed out to selected parts of the country.

What this means for London is unclear. Levelling up feels like a hostile agenda, with little of the language and spending commitments to date acknowledging the deep social and economic challenges faced by the capital. Expectations within the M25 were already low, and the current political storm in Westminster could see a greater focus on the “red wall” seats.

Conversely, the government is in a sticky position with some of its own MPs. Accusations have been made that investment in constituencies has been linked to loyalty in key parliamentary votes. With every move now under even greater scrutiny, the government might move away from targeting the white paper on a small number of geographical areas, to better reflect the nationwide scale of the challenge – including in London.

A part of me thinks it would be better if the white paper’s publication was delayed. The political climate is not right for something so important. Wrong decisions could be made, which could wreck confidence in the agenda.

I would guess Gove and Johnson want the white paper to be a Sgt Peppers or an Abbey Road, receiving glowing reviews, embraced by the public and leading to a lasting legacy. The Treasury would prefer a Greatest Hits compilation of repackaged old material. In the current political climate it could be more like the White Album – an inflated, poorly edited compendium, a mishmash of styles lacking coherence with lots of padding and a bit of something for everyone.

All concerned would prefer it not to turn out like Let It Be, which emerged from the abandoned Get Back recording sessions. Produced by Phil Spector, it was poorly received. NME critic Alan Smith scathingly deemed it a “cardboard tombstone” and “a sad and tatty end”. The government will be desperate to avoid the white paper landing that badly.

Nick Bowes is chief executive of think tank Centre for London. Follow Nick on Twitter. Photograph of “Paul McCartney” courtesy the government.

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