‘Levelling up’ is an empty catchphrase.

I can’t be the only one who, upon hearing or reading Johnson’s current catchphrase, envisions the Prime Minister as a cartoon figure with huge hands, disproportionate to the rest of his body. In one colossal hand he clenches a group of tiny people, some wearing culottes and a beret, others wearing Balenciaga hoodies and trackies, whilst smoking a joint. In the other sweaty palm, Johnson grasps dishevelled looking men covered in soot and wearing torn brownish (once white) vests. They’re not wearing berets, but hard hats. Now imagine Johnson weighing up the two sides, lifting and lowering, deciding who thrives and who dies.

The North-South myth

If you haven’t guessed already, the former example depicts the liberal metropolitan elite of the South, whilst the latter is of course the forgotten North. This classification and description of the two halves of the country (as if the Midlands and the coast don’t exist) is as lazy, cliche-driven and superficial as the government’s talk of ‘levelling up’, which is now conjuring up images of the PM walking up and down a well-manicured lawn with a surveyor’s level.

As is usual with this government, they like to launch big ideas with big (and irritating) slogans that lack any substance. This most recent motif is not new. It was thrown about throughout the 2019 general election, used in collaboration with the infamous ‘Get Brexit Done’. Both were key to winning over the so-called ‘Red Wall‘.  But just as getting Brexit ‘done’ was, and is, nowhere near as simple as the three words suggest, ‘levelling up’ is not as straight forward as picking up a bit of soil from the flower bed at the end of a garden and dumping it at the top. We’re yet to hear any concrete details of what restoring equilibrium to the country involves, but the very idea of ‘levelling up’ is at once too obscure, and too narrow in vision. It suggests a definite imbalance, a clear-cut disparity between the North and South. This is the first myth.

Whilst there is no denying that, in general, the South is more prosperous, it has somewhat become a part of popular culture to view the North as the tired, sad relative of the South — like the mother who is always talking about how beautiful she used to be in her ‘glory days’. But this does nobody any favours. The overall disparity is important to keep in mind, but what ‘levelling up’ really does, if you read between the words, is pit poor against poor, working class against the bourgeoisie, North against South. It works in the government’s favour to exaggerate this divide (as if any gap isn’t down to deliberate government policies), because any policy or investment thereafter makes it seem like progress. But let’s not forget the nuances and complex reality.

In the government’s own report in 2019, the Ministries of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) ranked nearly 33,000 neighbourhoods. Jaywick, Essex, was declared the ‘most deprived’ area in the country. Similarly, UNICEF recently announced it would be helping feed vulnerable families in the London borough of Southwark. I highlight this not to score ‘poverty points’ but to emphasise that the grandiose language of ‘levelling up’ is so out of touch with reality. This isn’t to ignore the fact that what also came of the MHCLG’s report was a much higher concentration of deprived areas in the North. But, lumping together one half of the country that centres around the wealthy London metropolis ignores the fact that within it, the wealth is unfairly distributed. And the same can be said for the North. It does not, and should not, be a discussion of ‘either, or’.

A stagnant conversation

A prosperous country for all means an integrated one. This means efficient transport. At the same time, the Chancellor has earmarked only £2.1 billion to keep (80 per cent of) train services running next year, when the estimated bill is £9 billion — more money for schools across the board, and better funding and running of the NHS. Transport, education, and health. These are things that are fundamental to us all, whether we live in the North or the South. Why is that? They allow for mobility — physical, social and economic. So why is it that whenever there is talk of the great ‘North-South divide’, the conversation is always so stagnant? The two imagined sides are left separate and disjointed and, whilst the Prime Minister bellows that he is going to ‘level up’ the country, I can hear the faint whispers of ‘stay in your lane’.

One example of this murky undertone to the ‘levelling up’ sound-bite is the government’s approach to young people. The ‘Kickstart’ scheme announced by Rishi Sunak hardly gets the engines of mobility going, offering a six-month placement, paid up to the minimum wage, but not guaranteeing any job at the end of it. It’s essentially cheap labour for companies. One criticism is that the placements will be taken up by graduates, and in the richer South, denying disadvantaged young people the same chance. But this is where the hollowness of the ‘levelling up’ agenda rings true. Once again, it’s the rich vs the poor, North vs South. If there was any section of society that should be least divided in these times, it is the youth, with young people across society expected to have a lower standard of living and be less likely to own a house than their parents. The pandemic has been brutal on all young people. Yes, they started from different bases, but the point still stands. Regardless of whether or not you view the scheme as beneficial, it exposes the true meaning of levelling up. If it truly is meant to help disadvantaged young people on benefits into work, then, whilst it provides employment (whether it is fulfilling is another matter— there’s no expectation on companies to provide a high quality experience), it’s only for six months. Then what? It doesn’t do anything to equip them with lifelong skills and qualifications that give them the freedom — and that’s the key word here — to pursue any career they want. The Chancellor has regularly spoken of people ‘retraining’ for jobs that will be ‘needed’ by industries in the future. On the surface, it seems fair enough. Arm people with ‘essential’ skills that will lead to sustainable employment. But, if I were to be cynical, it sounds as though we, the great mass, are being told to adapt to the new economy, rather than the economy being shaped by what we as a society want. And again, where is the longevity in this plan? Are people supposed to ‘retrain’ whenever the fickle economy morphs again? The pandemic has been a huge blow, but it has also shown the economy to be more fragile than previously portrayed. Where is the empowerment in that? The government loves to preach about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, yet they appear to be ‘pruning’ workers to suit business or economic interests, rather than ‘levelling up’.

A case of divide and conquer?

Of course, I understand that people want and need a stable income, and I don’t want to sound wishy-washy about it all, but at the heart of it is an ideological concern. There’s no doubt that the mention of levelling up stirs some indignation or sense of injustice among people, rightly or wrongly. This enables the government to appear to be ‘pulling up’ those left behind. But what it ignores is that whether you’re being given a boost up, or being crushed, it’s still not entirely in your control. Universities, which at one point were seen as an engine of social mobility have consistently been a target for this government. Which is strange, considering that if they really wanted to ‘level up’ the country, they would work with universities to improve access for disadvantaged young people. Instead, they threatened to withhold much-needed funding from struggling institutions in the midst of a pandemic if universities didn’t sign up, promising to protect ‘freedom of speech’ on campus. This sustained and calculated ‘culture war’ launched against universities (and the arts) is part of a government campaign to undermine the sector, with a focus on ‘vocational skills’ and apprenticeships. Now, I in no way seek to diminish the value and necessity of these qualifications, but why is the government so insistent on telling the ‘disadvantaged’, and those in the North, that ‘university ain’t it’ and here’s the alternative. I also wonder if, in its current state at least, ministers would be happy for their own children to join the apprenticeship scheme? Or is the lane for their offspring signposted as ‘PPE at Oxford’?

Even the Erasmus — sorry, ‘Turing’ — scheme, meant as an exercise in collaboration and partnership, has become a battle of rich vs poor. The image being portrayed of the exchange programme as a sort of free holiday for rich students is disingenuous, and also ignores the fact that losing the scheme wipes away the £200 million it brought in. Universities will have to ‘bid’ to join the new scheme and only ‘successful applicants’ will receive funding for it. So does this mean that some students will be denied this supposedly ‘life-changing’ experience simply because of the university they attend? Universities are meant to be the great equaliser, and whilst we know that it doesn’t translate that way in reality, this doesn’t change the fact that the government continues to monopolise things that were once unifying and freely available — just to be able to seize them and hand them to people and say, ‘look what we’ve given you’. Seems more ‘divide and conquer’ than ‘levelling up’.

True levelling up means ensuring that people are equipped with the knowledge and education to make their own career and life choices, and then providing the practical and physical infrastructure to turn theory into reality. That means offering teaching and cultural experiences in state schools that equal those of the private sector. It also means affordable and reliant transport to commute for jobs, whilst living where you grew up because it’s your home; or moving closer to the job because that’s what you want and affordable housing is available. It means comprehensive healthcare that doesn’t leave you for months on a waiting list, unable to work.

Doesn’t this sound so much more dynamic than the rather limp ‘levelling up’? So, whenever you hear the phrase being parroted, don’t think ‘resurfacing the pavement’. Think: ‘giving you the skills we want you to have so that you can do the job we want you to do, and not think things we don’t want you to think, whilst making you think this is everything you want’.

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