Truss is exposing ‘levelling up’ as a hollow, cynical soundbite
Voters were seduced by Johnson’s promises, but his successor is showing the Tories care little about ‘left behind’ areas.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian.
In a country with 4.3 million children living in poverty, a cost of living crisis and rampant inflation, every sensible person in Britain will be relieved to hear that the government is going for growth. It’s funny that no one thought of this before. But wait a minute: didn’t the Cameron government have a plan for growth – a “northern powerhouse”? Wasn’t Johnson’s big policy levelling up? If you live in a “left behind” area, this continual invocation of growth as a panacea can feel a bit desperate. That’s certainly how Liz Truss sounded last week as she trotted out yet another growth plan.
It’s the places that have not only been left behind, but kept behind (many of which voted Tory in 2019) that will undoubtedly be feeling decidedly rattled and a lot worse off after the chaos of the last few weeks. In the short time that she has been prime minister, Truss has managed to jettison both the government’s economic credibility and what little was left of a plan for tackling the UK’s spiralling regional inequality.
Where you live in the UK determines not only your income and your prospects of a job, but your health and wellbeing. For many people, it can be the difference between life and death. People born in the poorest areas of England and Wales can expect to live between eight and 10 years less than those in the richest areas. More than a decade of austerity, followed by the pandemic, have exacerbated regional inequality: 21% of jobs in the north of England are paid less than the real living wage. The manifesto pledge to level up the UK won the Conservatives the 2019 election, but Truss seems willing to abandon this in favour of a generic and banal focus on growth.
“Truss […] has framed the debate as a simple choice between growth or decline”
Having grown up in Leeds and Paisley, Truss could have sounded plausibly interested in a mission to address regional disadvantage. Instead, she has framed the debate as a simple choice between growth or decline, between the state and the market, revealing the rigidity of her belief in a status quo where Whitehall knows best. All talk about devolution has magically disappeared. Instead, for Truss, closing the gaps is simple: just bake a bigger pie, because that means more slices for everyone.
The problem is that bigger pies also mean bigger appetites. In the absence of regulation or sound fiscal policy, the bigger the pie, the greater the risk that it is gobbled up by those most able to take advantage. Truss’s plan is to keep upping the stakes to achieve a rate of growth that not only sustains the voracious appetites of the wealthy but also allows a few crumbs to fall from the plate to those on the lowest incomes. This will result in unfairness, making life even harder for those who are already struggling to make ends meet.
“who stands to benefit from the growth”
When Truss talks about an “anti-growth coalition”, she is deliberately missing the point. Few of us doubt the need for real economic change in our towns, cities and rural areas. However, the questions that we are asking are about who stands to benefit from the growth she hopes to generate.
Take Truss’s pledge to push ahead with investment zones. These supposedly attract new investment to create jobs. But we’ve been here before. England already has 48 enterprise zones, which pit regions against each other in beauty contests to attract businesses, which can often become a race to the bottom. The assumption behind this policy is that these areas have no value to investors beyond their capacity to generate value-added profits, where the proceeds of growth will be owned by global multinationals rather than local communities. But our regions have so much more to offer than that.
“ensuring people can live good lives, whether or not we have growth”
The harsh reality is that there will be no return to growth any time soon. Low growth has become Britain’s reality; the pandemic, Brexit, the climate and cost of living crises, and now rising inflation and interest rates, have all guaranteed that growth will remain stagnant for the foreseeable future. Instead of peddling fairytales, politicians need to focus on what is really important. Ensuring people can live good lives, whether or not we have growth. We must apply our efforts to rethinking and rewiring our economic system by building on the values, strengths and wealth of our places. We need to ask questions about how people can have a real stake in the economy, not just through employment, but also through democratic design that ensures the spoils of growth are owned and shared by everyone.
If Liz Truss wants to be bold – and if she wants to secure the votes of the places that backed her predecessor in 2019 – she could invest in local public services. Health, education, housing: each of these sectors are in crisis after more than a decade of political disinvestment. The Truss government could put aside outdated fantasies about markets and growth and instead make the UK’s public services the bedrock of a future economy, providing certainty to business and a source of pride to all of us once again. I’m sure someone must have thought of that before.