Everyone Deserves a Good Life, Not Just “Opportunities” for Success
Britain’s Tories promise to “level up” poorer regions to London standards. Yet they’re pursuing the same finance-centered agenda that has fueled inequality for decades: offering social mobility for a small handful while most people’s living standards fall.
By some measures, the UK has Europe’s worst regional inequalities. Government investment in public transport, for instance, overwhelmingly favors London and the South East. Over half of all foreign direct investment flows straight into the same regions. Regional disparities in educational attainment, income, and life expectancy are all growing.
The government’s flagship “leveling up” paper, meant to overcome these gaps, doesn’t make for easy reading. It’s over 300 pages long, parts are copied from Wikipedia, and others exude strong “we’ve got to hit the word count” energy. But worse, the policy measures it advances are woefully inadequate. On the day of its launch, a government watchdog concluded that the department responsible had “a poor understanding of what has worked well in previous local growth programmes.”
That Boris Johnson’s party will fail to tackle such inequalities is hardly surprising. These are the same Tories who have institutionalized reliance on volunteer-staffed food banks over the past twelve years; their austerity cuts disproportionately targeted deprived areas and resulted in sleeping on the streets increasing by 250 percent. This is a party that remorselessly whips up anti-immigrant hatred and, under Johnson’s tenure, has been described as the UK’s most corrupt administration since 1945. It is almost beyond parody, but even the government’s much-boasted-about leveling up funds (a new ministerial title was even created to disburse them) disproportionately flow to richer areas.
And yet, just as Brexit did not lead to cheaper energy bills or £350 million for the National Health Service, the open secret of the leveling up agenda is that it will not actually make the country more equal. Instead, it allows the Conservative Party to speak to public demands for tackling inequality while at the same time leaving untouched the very systems that underpin it. Here, again, there is precedent.
Learning from the Social Mobility Agenda
Just as the leveling up paper opened with the rallying cry “Stay local, go far”, the UK’s Social Mobility Commission’s long-stated goal has been to “ensure where you grew up does not impact where you go in life.” Both the social mobility agenda and the new leveling up paper propose to “spread” or “unleash” opportunity. Both have, and will, fail.
As Nicola Ingram and Sol Gamsu recently wrote:
The idea of social mobility is often wielded as an argument for providing equality of opportunity when the material conditions for allowing the upward mobility of the working-classes are absent and where there is no political will to tackle these.
The prospect of social mobility is the proverbial carrot used to entice the working class into climbing the ladder. It’s textbook lean-in mentality, encouraging individual attitude change while doing nothing to alter working-class people’s material conditions.
The mere existence of a lucky few who “escape” their background and make it to the top thus helps minimize and justify wider structural inequalities. If they made it, so can you, or so the story goes. This individualization of success sits behind so much contemporary discourse: Want to be less poor? Learn to budget at primary school. Want a well-paid job? Get a “useful” degree. Want a house? Move somewhere cheaper, as the children of the propertied keep telling us.
Reality, of course, paints a very different picture. Today, total real wages are still lower in the UK than they were before the 2008 financial crisis. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that 11 percent of the population is now in insecure work. Meanwhile, house prices have continued to rise exponentially. Since 1970, they’ve grown at almost twice the rate of wages; you’d need around eight times the average annual salary to buy a house in England. So, it’s little surprise that one of the UK’s leading experts on social mobility recently concluded that “younger generations of men and women now face less favourable mobility prospects than did their parents.”
In fairness to the Social Mobility Commission, its latest State of the Nation report (an annual temperature check on social mobility in the UK) did start to move beyond these narrow prescriptions. It endorsed recommendations for shifting the tax burden onto the rich through “major structural reforms to existing taxes on wealth” as well as scrapping the extremely regressive two-child limit and uprating benefits. These recommendations, however, are dead in the water. The old commissioners’ terms have now ended, and the new chair of the Social Mobility Commission, who has a problematic history herself, is on the lookout for experts who understand the UK’s “cultural” divides.
Ultimately, however, at the heart of dominant conceptions of social mobility lies a gaping omission — for some to go up, others must go down. Or, to spell out an obvious but usually ignored reality, by definition not everyone can make it to the top, no matter how hard they work. Acknowledging this would shift social mobility discourse away from a “deficit model,” where the implication is that there is something wrong with the working class (education, accent, cultural tastes, and so on), and toward tackling concentrations of power and wealth that erode the possibilities for comfortable working-class lives in the first place.
Cutting Down Tall Poppies
This brings us back to the leveling up paper. In some respects, the agenda represents a break with the economic model of the past. There is recognition that “market forces, left to their own devices, can generate market failures that are both economically and socially costly.” There’s even a quiet rebuttal of recent history (read: Margaret Thatcher) that caused “large and lasting” damage to communities and regions around the country.
Yet despite outlining these failures, the white paper cannot think beyond them. Key to the leveling up illusion is the misrepresentation of London as a cornucopia of opportunity, a metropolis of unrivaled prosperity where the streets are paved with secure jobs and high-quality housing. By conveniently ignoring inequalities within London, where 38 percent of children live in poverty, we’re stuck in the same paradigm of our failed social mobility agenda. Whereas before our deficit model focused on working-class individuals, now the deficit is centered on working-class places. Instead of being more middle class, we are now to be “more like London.”
The white paper is tantalizingly close to reaching the same conclusion. It actively ponders “why measures of quality of life are often lowest in otherwise well-performing areas of the UK.” But instead of questioning a model that allows concentrated wealth to sit side-by-side by mass poverty, the white paper doubles down. It basically recommends that left-behind regions follow in London’s footsteps. Never mind your quality of life — being near to wealth is the next best thing to having it.
This London-centered grandstanding keeps our current economic model intact — or, as Boris Johnson writes in the leveling up foreword, leaves the tall poppies standing. Just as the social mobility agenda sidelines talk of the rich and their privilege, leveling up foregoes the prospect of corporate power extracting wealth from people and places. The fundamental point here is not that these are accidental omissions from otherwise noble causes but that this agenda-setting power precludes the possibility of successful, structural responses to tackling inequality.
That the leveling up paper will fail to improve living standards or diminish inequalities across the country is not notable. Any policy proposals that deliberately ignore the corporate and economic powers that sow divisions in the first place are obvious nonstarters. Yet the Conservatives clearly understand that there is public desire to tackle inequalities and will happily direct that energy anywhere and everywhere as long as it leaves the wealthy and big corporations untouched.
In this sense, leveling up takes the political expediency of the social mobility agenda and turbocharges it. Crucially, as others have argued, leveling up will not have to be successful to pay electoral dividends. A couple of vanity projects here and there will go a long way after years of brutal austerity cuts. Outlining who actually benefits from a rigged economic system should be front and center in any left-wing response. For an illustrative example, look no further than Shell, which recently posted annual profits of $19.3 billion while receiving taxpayer subsidies of almost £100 million. That UK citizens are simultaneously faced with gas price hikes of 54 percent, needlessly pushing thousands of people into fuel poverty, is a perfect example of the limits of leveling up.
There is a danger, however, in limiting our demands to better or proper leveling up. As previously mentioned, the Social Mobility Commission’s latest State of the Nation report is not short of policies that would dramatically change people’s lives. We’ve had our fair share of fairly radical templates in recent history as well. The policies of your average (progressive) think tank report would do a decent job at improving living standards across the country, as would the pledges from the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos.
Yet, as the Unite union’s general secretary Sharon Graham recently told Red Pepper, Corbynism’s defeat was “inevitable” given how little mobilization stood behind its core demands. Popular consensus for the policies simply wasn’t there. For people who’ve lived through decades of market dogma and the privatization of key basic services, the prospect of free broadband or a Green New Deal or genuinely secure employment could, understandably, seem too good to be true. Building belief in that change, from the ground up, requires a presence in people’s lives that cannot be established in a short election cycle. There really are no shortcuts.
While keeping an eye on this government’s bluster, it is important to remember, then, that change does not come from well-articulated policy documents, be they Conservative white papers or Labour manifestos. Dismantling the stranglehold that the rich and powerful have over the UK economy will require organization in the institutions in which they dominate: unions in the labor market and tenants’ associations in the housing market, alongside wider campaigns for public ownership of key industries. These measures to build popular power, not white papers about “opportunity,” are the building blocks of overcoming inequality.