‘Level up: Boosting the regions might mean levelling down London’ (with Phil Cowley), CityAM, 12 March 2020.

Except for updates on the coronavirus, no ministerial appearance these days is complete without mention of the government’s professed intention to “level up”.

This seems to mean a desire to do something — usually something to do with infrastructure spending — for the so-called “left-behind” places that voted Leave in 2016, and especially those “red wall” seats that flipped to the Conservatives at last year’s General Election. As a concept, it might be wonderful. As a phrase, it can grate a little — especially after its near constant repetition.

And yet, we have to admit, albeit through gritted teeth, it is quite clever. It conveys the impression that things are great in most parts of the country, and that all that’s needed to ensure the milk and honey flows to each and every corner of the land is a bit of long-overdue TLC from a government that, unlike its predecessors, really “gets it”.

Voters, though, may be more sceptical. Most of us tend to be wary of the idea that you can get something for nothing. Indeed, after being told for years — especially by the Tories — to think of the government’s accounts in terms of household finances, it would hardly be surprising if people see spending in zero-sum terms.

If you’re not raising taxes, and you say that you don’t want to borrow too much more, then additional spending in one area presumably has to come at the expense of spending in another.

And that area may well be London, given that we’ve also been told for years how much better funded Britain’s biggest city is than other parts of the country, especially in terms of transport and other infrastructure, than other parts of the country. Any sustained effort to reduce regional inequalities may well cost the capital some of the alleged government largesse that it has been used to recently.

That, at least, is the fear of many of London’s council leaders and politicians — hence the recent cries of pain from London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 32 boroughs and the City of London, and the think tank Centre for London. Peter John, chair of London Councils, even warned that ambitions to level up the country could easily descend into what he called “a crude ‘level London down’ agenda”.

But what do Londoners think? At the Mile End Institute, part of Queen Mary University of London, we decided to test whether that assumption is shared by the city’s inhabitants — and whether they thought that London losing out as a result of levelling up was or wasn’t acceptable. Our survey ran just last week and involved a representative sample of 1,002 Londoners.

On the whole, the capital’s residents can see what is coming. They are fairly (some would say surprisingly) resigned to the fact that levelling up will indeed see London receive less government money than in the past.

A third of them (33 per cent) confess that they don’t know, but that leaves almost half (44 per cent) who believe London will lose out — twice as many as the 22 per cent who believe it won’t.

This belief is shared by almost all demographic groups — men, women, working-class, middle-class, white, black and minority ethnic, and those living within inner and outer London. There is some difference by age: younger Londoners are less sure that the city will lose out, older ones more sure. But even among the young, more think London will suffer than not.

And yet, people don’t seem overly concerned about this. When we asked whether it would be a problem if London lost out on government funding, a full 43 per cent said that it would be acceptable, compared to just 31 per cent who thought not.

Again, this view — call it altruism, call it simple resignation, call it what you will — is widely shared regardless of demographic differences, although older voters are less keen.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you think you might lose out on something and that you don’t mind too much if you do, and quite another to know how you will actually feel about it when it happens. As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

But for the moment, if the Johnson government feels that it needs to spend less on London in order to help poorer parts of the country, then it doesn’t look like it will face too much resistance.

Originally published at https://www.cityam.com/level-down-london/


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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