Michael Gove is desperate to hold on to ex-Labour “Red Wall” seats the Tories took from Labour at the last general election. So this week he set out his plans to deal with regional inequality.
“Levelling up” is the Tory buzzword for the secretary of state for housing and communities’ programme. Gove’s White Paper consists of vague promises on infrastructure spending and investment. It also includes plans for more city and regional mayors, and a smattering of other meaningless commitments.
The Tories are trying to take advantage of longstanding debates over the “north/south divide”. For many commentators “the south”—by which they really mean London and parts of the south east of England—is an island of prosperity. Meanwhile “the north”—everywhere beyond that island—is characterised by run down towns, low pay and poor health.
The claim is a shallow exaggeration with more than a hint of prejudice about it. But a glance at some of the most important statistics seems to back up the wider claim of extreme regional inequality. For example, in 2018-20 life expectancy for women was about seven years lower in Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Liverpool than in the London boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Camden.
For men the gap was at eight years. And the number of years we can expect to live in good health reflects a similar pattern, as when it comes to wages there is a sharp geographical gap. Workers in London are paid an average of £20 an hour, more than 60 percent higher than the £13 average in Grimsby and Scarborough.
These terrible figures are the end result of four decades of neoliberalism. They show the extent of the damage done to the north. But they can also mask the desperate poverty that right wing economics created in the south, and high costs of living too.
The decimation of the manufacturing industry during Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s was followed after 1997 by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Labour governments. They were content to leave investment in poor areas to the free market.
Skilled and semi-skilled jobs were culled at an incredible rate. In 1979, when Thatcher came to power, 38 percent of people in Britain were in industrial employment. By 1998 that figure had fallen to just 27 percent and continued to slide downwards.
From 2010 onwards came a huge wave of Tory austerity cuts that wiped out parts of the public sector. What remained for many people was less skilled, lower paid and more insecure work. For young people, particularly those that went to university, that is a good enough reason to leave for London.
The result today is that many parts of Britain are deemed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to have “below average productivity”. Many have received no serious economic investment for generations.
That has created a vicious cycle that according to the ONS has engulfed the whole of Wales, large parts of the north east, north west, and south west of England, and swathes of Scotland. No wonder then the sweeping rage that proclaims the establishment has torn chunks off Britain and left it to rot. It was exactly that feeling of detachment that characterised at least some of the 2016 Brexit vote. Sometimes it’s the apparently small things that give the best expression of this.
Pensioner Sue Wild is 76 years old and lives alone on the outskirts of Sheffield. She loves to go into town to meet friends and socialise, but also needs to travel there for hospital appointments and to do her shopping. Cuts to local authority spending have reduced local public transport to a point where it barely functions. “It’s only 20 minutes by car to the centre of town, but I can’t drive,” she tells Socialist Worker.
“The buses are slow and unreliable. So, if I’ve got a hospital appointment, I have to leave at least an hour and a half earlier. Then I worry about whether I’ll be able to get one back home. The situation makes me feel terribly isolated.”
In London, average spending on public transport amounts to £882 per person. The average for the rest of Britain is just £393. The huge disparity is because the Tories and big business see London as the most important generator of profits. It is for them the most “productive” place in the country. To keep the money flowing, the city needs communication and travel networks that rival the best in the world. And it needs constant investment in infrastructure to keep it competitive.
But the story of how neoliberalism laid waste to some parts of Britain while boosting others is far more complex than simply north versus south. The north of England is inhabited by the very rich as well as the very poor.
Head to the landed estates of North Yorkshire, for example, and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of wealth. There’ll be rows of gleaming Range Rover luxury cars, grouse shooting parties, expensive restaurants and beautiful mansions. In the wealthy suburbs of cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds there are many well-off, middle class families. They send their children to local fee-paying schools and use only private healthcare.
It’s a scene repeated in scores of Tory-supporting areas in the north that long pre-date the collapse of Labour’s so-called “Red Wall”. That’s why ONS maps of income and productivity show clusters of wealth all over Britain, not just in the south east.
And just as London is known for its glass skyscrapers and for being a playground of the global rich, it should also be known for its squalor. Socialist Worker has regularly reported on the former office blocks and even shipping containers that serve as makeshift “homes” in the capital. Some 28 percent of London’s population lives in poverty, compared to the 22 percent average across Britain. That’s a staggering 2.5 million people—more than three times the total population of Leeds.
Much of that poverty is caused by the cost of living, which can be up to 58 percent higher than across the rest of the country. Poor households in London spend on average 56 percent of their income on rent, compared to 37 percent in the rest of Britain.
Far from being an island of prosperity, London is for millions a fast-spinning treadmill that they must run to keep up with. Anger at the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in Britain is a real threat to Boris Johnson’s Tories, and to the wider order. Gove’s levelling up policy is an attempt to divert it.
But it’s not just the Tories that want to do this. Labour city mayors and regional authorities play the game too, each bidding for money to build better airports, rail hubs and so on. They talk about “regional interests” as if there were no class distinctions within them. That has given the Tory policy a cover of legitimacy.
Lavishing attention on the small, neglected “left behind” towns that swung behind the Tories at the last general election is expected to pay electoral dividends. But their real aim is far wider. The Tories want to appear as friends to workers and sections of the middle class in the north that feel downtrodden and mistreated. This is borrowed straight from the playbook of former US president Donald Trump.
They insist that the capital and its liberal elite have amassed all of Britain’s power and treasure for itself because it looks down on the north with snobbery. Backing the Tories is now presented as a blow against the establishment. Or as Gove put it, we will “allow overlooked and undervalued communities to take back control”. But there are big barriers to the right’s strategy.
Hatred of the Tories is growing as Johnson’s Number 10 antics reveal him not as a comedy figure, but as an elitist that thinks rules are for little people.
Meanwhile a cost of living crisis has unleashed itself on millions of workers. They now face the choice of fighting back with others from every part of Britain, or surrendering their standards of living to an onslaught of price rises. If they choose struggle, the Tories and their levelling up ruse will be flattened.
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