The government’s “levelling up” bluster is vacuous – but also dangerous.
It is dangerous because it functions to hide the reality of levelling down for swathes of the working class, in all areas of the country, and of reinforced regional inequality intertwined with that.
The labour movement needs clear demands to “level up” the living standards and rights of as many workers and working-class people as fast as possible, combined with tackling regional inequality. As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has rightly said, in the run up to the government’s Spending Review, the starting point should be demanding reversal of a decade of cuts.
To make this possible, and as a good thing for society in itself, we need a levelling down of the rich. Through heavy progressive taxation – corporation tax, capital gains tax, a wealth tax and tax on very high incomes – to redistribute wealth to public services, jobs and benefits; and through stronger and more aggressive unions which can redistribute it to private-sector workers directly too.
The Tories’ dishonesty is sometimes startling. Before he started blathering about “levelling up”, Boris Johnson had a long history of dismissing the rest of the country in favour of London, or ratherrich people in London; he described the capital as being for “the billionaire [what] the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan… we’re proud of that”.
Johnson gets away with it only because of the lack of fight, and the lack of substantial criticism and alternative proposals, coming from the Labour Party and the labour movement more broadly.
Right-wing Labour politicians are tying themselves in knots about whether they should criticise the government’s “pork barrel” distribution of funds to areas where they want to reinforce the Tory vote, or whether that could wrongfoot them with locals who hope to benefit. None of them is exposing the reality of the Tories’ whole policy. None of them is demanding a real redistribution of wealth and funding to benefit the working class across the country, and more deprived areas within that.
If they were made part of serious campaigning, the figures themselves would shout out. The Stronger Towns Fund will give out £1.6bn between 2019 and 2026. But since 2010 councils have lost almost exactly ten times that much in central government grant.
The Spending Review of 27 October will not change anything majorly for the better. Rishi Sunak is proposing funding for 78 “family hubs” – after the Tories closed 1,300 Sure Start centres. He’s proposing £5.9bn extra for the health service – but if increases over the last decade had matched those after 1997, the NHS budget would already be £50bn higher than it is. He’s proposing ending the public sector pay freeze – which could well mean somewhat smaller real-terms pay cuts. He’s proposing a 59p rise in the minimum wage – that’s 6.7%, when UK billionaires have increased their wealth by more like 50% during the pandemic.
And so on and so on and so on… The figures can speak volumes, but only if there is a serious argument and fight.
There is no indication that local government, the front line in the Tories’ war on both public services and local democracy, will get anything new, which means more cuts and more council tax rises.
Meanwhile an increasing amount of public spending goes straight to profit-making companies. In social care, transport and many sectors, the debate is primarily about public subsidies for private providers. In the public sector, including the NHS, more and more money goes to private providers too.
The labour movement, Labour Party and trade unions, should demand:
• “Level back” by quickly restoring funding local authorities have lost, £16bn since 2010. As well as battering the poorest in society, those cuts have hit more deprived areas hardest. Give councils extra billions to start a major council house-building programme. Introduce a new funding formula to meet local needs, level up across the country and make future cuts more difficult. Restore local government powers, which Tory rhetoric about “irresponsible” “loony left” councils suggests they want to degrade even further.
• Fund regions to level up to London’s capital expenditure, for transport and other infrastructure. John McDonnell gives a figure of £30bn.
• Combine that spending with a drive to stop privatisation and outsourcing and expand public ownership. That is the way to maximise this extra spending raising living standard, creating jobs and helping tackle the climate emergency, while shifting power away from capital and towards the working class.
• Set out a quick timetable to increase the minimum wage to £15 an hour. Increase statutory sick pay to a living-wage-level and make it available to all. (Both were demanded by Labour conference.) The TUC’s figure for sick pay is £320 a week, against £96.35 currently. Repeal all laws which hinder workers and unions from organising and acting to improve pay and conditions.
• Reverse all cuts to benefits, starting with the £20 a week Universal Credit cut, and increase benefits to living-wage-level. If standard rate UC was at the real level of unemployment benefit in the early 1980s, it would be £160 a week, not £96. The TUC has called for £260. (More ideas on transforming the benefits system: bit.ly/t-ben)
There is vast wealth in society – we can “level up” by tapping into it, by moving wealth from the rich and employers to the working class.
Part of making policies convincing is fighting for them. To build a real movement for alternative policies, to put force behind motions calling for new Labour and trade-union policies, we need serious organising on the streets and in workplaces, and strikes. Unemployment is lower than we feared it would be after the lockdowns: as in the USA, that gives us a better start-point for pay battles.
The better we can support current or potential workers’ struggles, like the Sage care strikes and the efforts to get action on pay in the local government and the NHS, the more likely we can shift the government and push the unions and Labour to better policies.