Levelling Up the UK: If not the Conservatives, will Labour Learn the Lessons from Past Policy Failings?
This article considers the levelling-up agenda in the UK, examining the Johnson government’s original proposals to tackle regional and local inequality and its continuation under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak following the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss. The 2022 Levelling Up in the United Kingdom White Paper is notable for the frank and wholesale critique it provides of previous governments’—both Tory and Labour—efforts to address the pressing issue of geographic inequality. The assessment was that a pattern of ad hoc and incoherent reforms needed to be replaced by a stable, long term and system-wide approach to change. Yet, under Johnson, Truss and now Sunak, policy churn is continuing, with an approach that falls short in following the lessons set out in the White Paper. We provide a detailed analysis of the government’s critique of past reforms, the lessons it has set out and why its reform programme is likely to repeat past failings. Crucially, the approach leaves the structure of central government almost untouched, with substantive reforms instead focussed at the local governance level. We argue the government’s programme perpetuates the ‘power-hoarding’ tendencies of the Westminster model, a key bulwark against meaningfully addressing the UK’s spatial inequality problem. We conclude that the levelling-up agenda, missions and targets are unlikely to be met under Rishi Sunak, reflecting the endemic nature of short-termism and centralisation of power in the UK’s public policy approach. We then consider the approach of Starmer’s Labour Party to levelling up and the issues it needs to confront if it forms the next government.
This article was published on 15 February 2023 in The Political Quarterly.
Authors Patrick Diamond, David Richards, Anna Sanders, Andy Westwood