How Tory Lockdown Is Punishing the Left-Behind

The most deprived parts of England – and those which suffered most from a decade of austerity – are at the frontlines of lockdown. The Tories' refusal to support them is a disgrace.

Boris Johnson has achieved something remarkable. In deciding that it is better to humiliate and punish Greater Manchester – a city region of close to 3 million people – than to stump up an extra £5 million, he has managed to unite Andy Burnham, Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese, and the young, often Momentum-aligned, local Labour left. What is going on?

In short, Greater Manchester – aware that the government planned to move it into a Tier 3 lockdown – calculated that it required £90 million to support local people and businesses; with £65 million an absolute bare minimum. The government responded with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of £60 million, then briefed MPs, as Burnham and other local leaders were speaking to the press, that Greater Manchester would have Tier 3 restrictions imposed unilaterally.

Initially, it appeared that only £22 million would be made available, to support test and trace activities locally – it now appears that the £60 million is ‘back on the table’, as Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick put it. But the intention appears to be to circumvent Burnham.

In many ways, we have been here before. In the dark days of the 1980s, when Thatcher’s response to municipal authorities seeking to protect their residents was to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) and the Metropolitan County Councils.

Many of her own colleagues were made uneasy by ‘her deep-seated and almost obsessive objections to urban socialists’ – while the Labour MP for Manchester Central, Bob Litherland, was driven to ask in parliament whether it might be deemed ‘unfair that the metropolitan counties have to suffer because a Prime Minister takes a paranoiac view of Ken Livingstone and thinks that he is immortal.’

With Lisa Nandy now noting that Matt Hancock ‘spent five minutes of a twenty-five minute conversation having a go at Andy Burnham,’ suggesting the government is ‘weirdly obsessed’ with him, it is hard to conclude anything other than that the Conservative Party is once again reverting to its historical mean; a ruthless disdain for Labour-controlled local authorities, even – indeed, especially – in times of immense economic and social crisis.

What is clear – particularly when one considers the amounts offered to Lancashire, Liverpool City Region, and South Yorkshire – is that the government has decided areas entering Tier 3 will receive a maximum of around £30 per person in support. The negotiations – in other words – are a sham.

This would be a derisory figure even if we were in a world without coronavirus, under the auspices of Johnson’s much-trumpeted ‘levelling up’ agenda: that it is intended to compensate areas being placed into the highest tier of regional lockdown is frankly insulting.

To be blunt, one senses that part of the motivation for this funding is partly to further distract journalists whose critical faculties – if yesterday’s press conference questioning of Johnson is anything to go by – appear overwhelmed by the mere act of a Conservative politician listing multiple, often irrelevant, governmental spending commitments.

There is also, however, a larger point at play. As I noted recently in this magazine, the strategy being sketched out by Johnson and Sunak increasingly suggests an economic agenda of punitive clientelism.

In a week where it emerged that private sectors consultants are earning £7,000 a day to work on the falling test and trace programme, while councils moving into Tier 3 are being given around £7 per person to boost test and trace in their own areas, the contours of this approach became even starker.   

Anyone who seriously thinks giving councils and regions a total somewhere between £20 and £30 per head will make even the slightest dent locally lacks a serious understanding of the places being hit with these restrictions.

Even the most cursory of comparisons shows that local authority areas suffering from the highest covid-19 cases per 100,000 are also those which – per 2019 deprivation data – are the most deprived areas nationally.

The average cases per 100,000 in the top 25 most deprived local authorities is currently 2,079, while it is 750 for the 25 least deprived local authorities. It is not within the scope of this piece or my knowledge to draw an inference between deprivation and Covid-19 – although there is much work already emerging looking at these relationships.

Rather, the key point in this context is that the areas which are already deeply deprived, and have already faced disproportionately brutal cuts for a decade, are the ones most likely to be moving into Tier 3. They need funding not just to get them through this period, but to help communities which have been on the hard end of austerity for over a decade.

The government, however, clearly has other plans. What this debacle suggests – what the government’s intransigence over even meeting Greater Manchester’s bare minimum requirement shows – is that whilst the process of austerity is gone, the logic of it continues. Self-evidently, the government could support local authorities more if it chose to do so.

There are countless examples, from both the covid-19 emergency and previously, that show the hypocrisy of central government’s miserly approach. Chris Grayling’s multiple mishaps have alone cost the country close to £3 billion.

Indeed, if we take solely the £22m being awarded to Greater Manchester to boost track and trace, this works out as half as much as was spent on last autumn’s ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign, and £3m less than was awarded to Robert Jenrick’s own constituency – amongst the least deprived areas in the UK – from the government’s own Towns Fund.

The strand connecting an unwillingness to adequately fund areas moving into Tier 3; seemingly unlimited government largesse when it comes to private contractors, outsourcing organisations, and firms connected to Tory donors; and an obsession with debt reduction even as the economic conditions and economic consensus suggest governments should be doing the opposite, is a trenchant unwillingness to even slightly concede that the role of the state should be in supporting us all.

As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has noted – by bringing in regional lockdowns as they phase out economic support – the government is effectively locking-in the worst of both worlds. It is not incompetence that means Conservative control of the state during this crisis is delivering profits to Serco as children go hungry, but ideology and intransigence.

The task for the left at this juncture is therefore twofold: not just to be cognisant of what the government is doing, but also – as Andy Burnham has done in recent days – to communicate the depressing extent to which this is a conscious, deeply punitive choice.