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Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda could end the era of neoliberalism in the UK but mark the start of something equally harmful

Back in 2010, when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government began, austerity was the order of the day. The deficit had to be brought down, we were continually told. Public spending was slashed, public sector jobs were cut, wages frozen. We were all in it together, according to then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

This narrative dominated UK politics for several years, before it was overtaken by the Brexit debate for several more. This was another divisive debate, wrapped up in unifying language. We could take back control, apparently. Our NHS could benefit from huge amounts of money if only we weren’t wasting it on European union membership.

These two policy areas have delivered us to a very interesting juncture. The people of the UK, having been sold the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ and the idea that they can ‘take back control’ now expect some kind of reward. When Boris Johnson declared austerity a policy of the past, it was a further nail in the coffin of neoliberalism. I’m sure David Cameron doesn’t see himself as the architect of the end of neoliberalism in the UK but I’m going to give him the credit.

The tensions within the Conservative Party are masked somewhat by their large majority in the Commons. They have been visible though through each period of Covid lockdown, as Johnson has been under pressure from the New Right section of his party to enter lockdown late and leave it early. We can add the third policy area of Covid as banging another nail in that coffin, as it has forced the government to act in ways that embarrass neoliberals.

Neoliberalism, with it’s almost religious deifying of the free market, seems very out of step with what is seen, right now by the political class, as pragmatic and necessary. Whilst it was the Brexiteer New Right that promoted Johnson to the leadership of the Tory Party on the basis of getting Brexit done, it is a one nation conservative approach that they now see their leader executing.

This approach of ‘governing in the interests of everyone’ is a smart move by Johnson, who has read the mood of the public. He can see that the austerity of the coalition, Brexit and Covid have created a collectivist mindset. The rise of Corbyn was another clue of this. He might have lost two elections but individual policies were seen as very popular. What wasn’t popular was a manifesto binding them all together, or indeed, the leader himself.

Politics has shifted to the left on economic matters and with neoliberalism in retreat we need to work out what this means for us all. I’m not expecting a redistribution of the wealth. The policy of levelling up seems to resonate with the electorate, despite it being a vague aim rather than a set of clearly defined policies. It suggests money will be spent, and it might well mean that. It suggests that the Tories will need to work at it and really show something under its banner for them to keep winning red wall seats from Labour.

I’m expecting it to be delivered in a typically conservative manner. I think initiatives like the ‘Levelling Up Fund’ will continue but that is really just a small gesture. I’m imagining that Johnson’s plans for levelling up could include the wholesale moving of government departments and agencies to the north of England. It could be argued that this will create job opportunities in these areas and stimulate economic growth.

They could look to extend the funding for levelling up projects and if they do I suspect they will either create a body to oversee this, adding an extra layer of authority. They could also rely on currently existing political institutions at a local level but that would allow Labour to get involved with the dishing out of cash and I expect they will be reluctant to allow that.

The supporters of neoliberalism have not gone away. Johnson is merely being pragmatic and meeting the expectations of the public. He used the 2019 general election campaign to focus on Brexit but levelling up was also a key plank of that campaign. It is a phrase that perhaps represents the acceptable face of collectivism for conservatives. Labour’s promises also tapped into this desire but fell short of convincing people.

There will be tensions within the Conservative Party on all of this. Johnson has worried the very people who granted him the leadership. He’s under pressure from the MPs who gained seats from Labour to deliver the levelling up agenda. Neoliberalism won’t lie still. Its proponents will shout loudly at every stage of its replacement.

Last summer I wrote an article about the realignment of British politics. We are starting to see now where this realignment is heading. Brexit dominates our politics and with the Chesham and Amersham by-election last month, it appears that the Lib Dems could be a force again in areas with high Remain sympathisers. Meanwhile the Tories have tapped into this feeling, particularly in the north of England, that we really are all in it together. Brexit and Covid has just made that feeling stronger and we can expect them to gain votes and seats in those areas.

Johnson will have to deliver on levelling up though and he will likely go down a paternalistic route that offers opportunities to areas, underpinned with bureaucrats he can trust to deliver projects. Levelling up will be about making areas economically competitive. Meanwhile, inequality will continue to rise and true collective action will be hard to galvanise. The levelling up agenda should not be considered on its own. Attacks on protest will continue. Police powers will be increased. Tougher sentences for those convicted will get through parliament. The increased opportunities that come with levelling up then, are being balanced with a threat to rights and long established freedoms.

The seeming death of neoliberalism does not mean that we can rejoice. A different form of conservatism should not imply a better, more acceptable set of policies. We must adjust by considering where the new battle lines will be. We must embrace people who come to anarchism either to oppose these new threats or out of frustration with the flailing of the Labour Party, as it desperately tries to out flank Johnson. We must be ready. Levelling up will be difficult to deliver, controversial within the governing party and it will undoubtedly provide new opportunities for anarchist organising and action.

Dr Jon Bigger

Image: Fields of Light Photography

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