As another political party conference drew to a close this week, it was the turn of a different leader to blither on stage about a half-baked vision for the country. This time it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, addressing the audience of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Once again, Johnson emphasised his ‘levelling up’ flagship programme, utilising a slogan that has been ever-present since 2019. He reiterated that the policy was about ‘offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind’, and about pursuing his promise of a Britain with a ‘high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity and low-tax economy’.
To the prime minister’s credit, his pledge to end ‘decades of drift and dither’ and tackle the ‘long-term structural weaknesses’ was a rare episode of honesty on his part – because it was a sober assessment of the debilitating repercussions of neoliberalism.
The reality that Johnson can’t outrun is that the economic blueprint that has dictated the public policy of predominantly Conservative governments in the last half-century is the root cause of the turmoil he now hopes to remedy. Central to that was the last decade of austerity, which saw the public services relied upon by communities decimated and destroyed the quality of life of millions.
Specific sectors show the extent of the damage. Just before the 2019 general election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that schools and colleges in England suffered the worst fall in spending since the 1970s, amounting to approximately an eight percent cut per pupil since 2009. Even the additional £4.3 billion annual investments proposed in the last Conservative manifesto, the Institute concluded, would barely reverse the impact of the cuts.
The schools in the most deprived areas were hit the hardest by these cuts. Secondary schools in locations with the 20 percent lowest incomes had their spending reduced by nearly £1000 per pupil.
In social care, the end result was the same. By 2020, adult social care spending in England was approximately £600 million lower than ten years earlier, with spending on elder care by local authorities falling by a huge 31 percent – a reduction that took place in tandem with an increase in Accident and Emergency visits, worsening the pressure that A&Es and the NHS more broadly were already under.
These remorseless cuts have had lasting effects. It emerged in February last year that for the first time in a century life expectancy had stalled in Britain, and the amount of time people were spending in poor health had increased. The government’s austerity policies were pointed to as the chief cause.
Unsurprisingly, those poorer communities hit the hardest by years of cuts were those the most vulnerable to Covid-19. At a regional level the extent of the destruction was clear. Research shows that austerity had a disproportionate impact on the North of England, which in turn meant that at the height of the pandemic, 57.7 more people per 100,000 died in the North than elsewhere. These are not abstract numbers: that’s almost 60 more families mourning a lost loved one.
Tory government policy in the last decade allowed an ecosystem to develop in which a deadly virus thrived. The pandemic crystallised the extent to which our institutional resilience has been dismantled – not through accident or neglect, but through ideology. It is these same ideologues now touting their ability to see the country ‘level up’.
That means that when Johnson criticises the UK’s ‘imbalanced and lop-sided economy’, he is indicting no one but himself. Had the Conservatives not chosen to punch downwards for several years, the very notion of levelling up would be rendered obsolete.
While the Prime Minister pursued this optimistic tone, the Chancellor’s sentiments were more instructive. During his speech at the conference, the richest man in Parliament came down firmly on the side of ‘fiscal discipline’, ominously mirroring former Prime Minister David Cameron who used that specific terminology to argue against halting austerity in 2017. While Johnson self-indicted over the UK’s ‘imbalanced and lop-sided economy’, Sunak saluted ‘ten years of sound Conservative management’.
Sunak appears to have opted for relative truth in his decision to allude to the further misery to be inflicted on those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. On the very day that Johnson touted the centrality of building back better, the Universal Credit slash came into effect. This is a policy cited as the biggest overnight cut to the base rate of welfare since World War II – one that will see some families lose as much as £1,040 from their annual income. More than 800,000 people could be pushed into chronic poverty, while 100,000 renters in England are now at increased risk of eviction. And, as night follows day, new data has shown that the North of England, Ireland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will be disproportionately affected.
This is not a one-off. The slashing of the uplift comes just weeks after National Insurance contributions were also hiked, meaning an estimated two million families on low incomes facing benefit cuts will also have to pay £100 more in NIC yearly. Incomes are being eroded just as fuel, food, and potentially council tax bills are all set to rise. In this context, talk of ‘levelling up’ isn’t just a fantasy – it’s an insult.