New Tory groups helping the north to level up – or down?

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The emergence of the Northern Research Group and the Levelling Up Taskforce

In December 2019, Boris Johnson did not unleash ‘Britain’s potential’ but yet another of his interminable catchphrases. Levelling up’ appeared in the slimline Conservative election manifesto no less than eleven times. As is ever the case with Johnson’s words, no one can be entirely sure what it means. In The Guardian, Imogen West-Knights memorably described it with “as close to meaningless as it’s possible for it to be without being written in Wingdings.”

Phrases such as “unite and level up our country, giving people opportunity and hope” and “historic investment to level up and connect” score well as aspirational sound bites but zero for specific detail and action planning.

And it seems it’s not just us so-called ‘lefty do-gooders’ who don’t entirely trust the government. Significant numbers of the government’s own MPs clearly have some misgivings as to how far it will make good on even these vague promises. Two – not one, but two – new Conservative groups have formed this year, with the stated intention of holding the government to its levelling up agenda.

The Northern Research Group

First of all, a somewhat secretive group of around 50 northern MPs have come together as the Northern Research Group (NRG). Jake Berry, founder of the group and a Northern Powerhouse minister for three years, describes it as “a trade union for northern MPs to use collective bargaining to get what we want”. One imagines that it will act as a real trade union in the same sense that the European Research Group undertakes real research and the Tax Payers Alliance worries about real tax payers (in other words, not at all).

Whilst the known big hitters are Jake Berry and David Davies, for those of us in the East Midlands, the group also includes such luminaries as Robert Largan, MP for High Peak, Ben Bradley in Mansfield and Karl McCartney in Lincoln. A number remain anonymous, protecting their high profile identities. This suggests that they are probably cabinet members. Speculation is irresistible. Is it Robert Jenrick, perhaps, who cowers behind the legs of his northern colleagues? Maybe even Rishi Sunak. What about Grant Shapps who has cabinet responsibility for the Northern Powerhouse, despite being MP for Welwyn Hatfield?

On the face of it, Berry wants to bust some Tory taboos. He rejects the idea that local mayors mean local Labour strongholds and supports Johnson’s pledge to do devolution properly – northern mayors with tax and spend powers. He is also open to the idea – at least in theory – of working with trade unions.

The Levelling Up Taskforce

The second group arises from Onward, a Conservative-affiliated, centre-right think tank. This is the brainchild of Neil O’Brien (MP for Harborough) and Will Tanner (erstwhile Spad to Theresa May). O’Brien announced that Onward would be watching the government closely and in September, its Levelling Up report was published.

Concomitantly, it launched the Levelling Up Taskforce, a group of 40 Tory MPs with the purpose of “charting progress on levelling up and producing further publications on ways to spread opportunity and boost growth in poorer areas.” Whilst there is some overlap between the NRG and the Taskforce (Robert Largan and Ben Bradley are common to both), the two groups do not seem to be directly related.

The report noted the increasing disparity since the 1970s between London and the other regions of the UK, in terms of GDP, output and living standards. Of all the regions of the UK, the East Midlands has lost the greatest proportion of Gross Value Added (GVA) since1998. The report also outlined three measures against which they would seem to intend to hold the government to account for under-performing regions. These are local authority income, unemployment rates falling and employment rates rising.

Unfortunately for both the NRG and Onward, thus far there is little evidence that Johnson has taken any notice of them. The combination of a pandemic, an inevitable hard Brexit (whether ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’) and a government that, whatever its rhetoric, acts as if it couldn’t give two pins for the north, appears to leave both groups screaming into the wind.

       


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The pandemic, of course, has further exacerbated the ‘north-south divide’. The virus struck hard and early in northern regions for the very same reasons that these regions need levelling up in the first place, an over-concentration of low-wage employment and poor, overcrowded housing.

With the whole of England going back under lockdown this week, the Chancellor has finally extended the 80 per cent furlough scheme (after weeks of ignoring calls to do so from all directions). Two weeks ago, Manchester’s leaders asked the government to close the gap between 67 per cent and 80 per cent for workers in Tier 3. They asked in vain.

To the NRG, this surely cannot look like a government that is serious about supporting proper regional devolution. It looks like a government that wanted to lockdown the north on the cheap.

Meanwhile, there is no indication that Johnson has any more inclination to listen to the Levelling Up Taskforce than to the NRG.

The Fair Funding Review for local authority funding has, for the moment been kicked into the long grass by the pandemic. However, earlier this year, the cross-party Local Government Association reported that it looked set to reroute millions of pounds of council funding back to traditional Conservative heartlands in southern shires and away from regions with the highest incidence of poverty.

As for employment and unemployment levels, while the government cleaves to a hard Brexit, it is hard to believe they are serious about levelling up jobs. Manufacturing, in particular, is vulnerable to new trade barriers with potential delays in integrated supply chains and increased costs from new border checks and tariffs. In the East Midlands, there are 305,000 manufacturing jobs and more than half the exports from the region go to the EU.

Public trust in the government is at an all time low. It should be damning that two separate groups of its own MPs feel the need, very publicly, to hold the government to its promises. But both the NRG and the Levelling Up Taskforce have yet to demonstrate that they are anything other than paper tigers. Perhaps that is even the point.

Actions speak louder than words. Boris Johnson is a known and widely documented liar. Is his levelling up promise to the East Midlands just his latest whopper? Will the NRG and the Levelling Up Taskforce help us or help him?