If candidates for the role of prime minister are serious about tackling the deep divides that exist across the UK then boosting pride needs to remain a central part of the conversation, says Jack Shaw.
When Boris Johnson became prime minister, he made tackling the structural inequalities in the UK’s social and economic fabric a central promise of his premiership. The recognition that the challenges facing places are not the same and therefore require a different policy response has been widely welcomed.
But the promises set out by the current Conservative leadership candidates suggest that this vision may no longer be a priority and “levelling up” is at risk of being jettisoned. Nor is it clear what fate will bestow the levelling up white paper, to which the vision owes much of its intellectual framework.
Last week, with the exception of Kemi Badenoch, all candidates signed up to former Northern Powerhouse Minister Jack Berry’s ‘Northern Agenda’, which keeps some of the impetus behind levelling up alive – and Tugendhat, who didn’t progress to the next round, said it would be “at the heart” of government if he were Prime Minister. While the remaining candidates have begun to set out visions of their own, a key question in this contest is whether candidates accept the need to level up left-behind places, and are prepared to commit to pursuing policies to that effect.
For the most part, candidates have signalled a move away from Johnson’s political philosophy to governing – which some critics described as “cakeism” (Johnson described himself a “pro having it [cake] and pro eating it too”). Instead, attention has turned more squarely to fiscal conservatism: tightening belts, shrinking the state and cutting taxes.
Once Johnson goes, some of the themes in the levelling up agenda will doubtless remain central to the next prime minister’s vision. There is no absence of policymakers and think-tankers calling for a laser-like focus on boosting growth and prosperity in our lagging towns and cities, for example. Productivity in Germany, France and the US is 17 per cent higher than the UK, which has increased at half the rate of the richest 25 OECD countries since the financial crash. In some quarters growth is seen as the antidote to the disenfranchisement and abandonment felt by “left-behind” places.
Yet the inequalities facing “places that don’t matter” aren’t generated solely by unequal economic development, and it is this that lay at the heart of the white paper which is at risk of being abandoned. Take boosting “pride in place”. The government’s understanding of pride is at best incomplete and at worst inaccurate. The white paper sees pride narrowly through the lens of giving high streets a new lease of life, increasing homeownership and tackling serious violence. These are important priorities in their own right, but some of them – tackling homicide is a case in point – are unlikely to make people prouder of where they live.
But the principle of boosting pride is sound, even if what constitutes pride is far broader than the white paper suggests. As our forthcoming report at the Bennett Institute will show, far from being superficial or short-term, pride can bind communities. Improving high streets is one aspect, but pride cuts across the built environment. Green spaces, heritage, regeneration and culture – whether that be the farmers market, pub or football club – can be “pride generators”, as can tackling vandalism and anti-social behaviour.
In many cases these amenities have fallen into a state of disrepair, and calls for a “Universal Basic Infrastructure” to ensure that communities have the minimum they need to sustain themselves is an important one. Civic and local leaders have a central role to play too.
At a deeper level, communities want to exercise power over their lives so that change happens ‘with’ and not ‘to’ them. They want to tell their own stories and celebrate their own histories. Amenities, and the interactions that take place within them, are not only sources of pride – they in turn help foster social capital, trust and participation which can help create the right conditions for economic growth. Rather than a return to fiscal restraint which has so far dominated the leadership contest, if candidates are serious about tackling the deep divides that exist across the UK then boosting pride needs to remain a central part of the conversation. An ambitious vision that makes people feel better about their lives and the places that they live is long overdue.