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The UK government is using ‘levelling up’ to hide a crackdown on political dissent

Boris Johnson’s domestic priorities are becoming clear: reward those who vote Conservative, and suppress those who don’t

Laurie Macfarlane
12 May 2021, 10.53am
In the Queen's Speech on 11 May 2021, 28 new bills were announced, most of which promised 'levelling up'
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Every British prime minister has a set of flagship policies that defines their legacy in office. For Margaret Thatcher, it was privatisation and deregulation. For Tony Blair, it was investment in public services and the Iraq War. For David Cameron, it was austerity and the ‘Big Society’.

What about Boris Johnson? For many, the answer is obvious: Brexit. But when it comes to domestic policy, the prime minister has yet to leave his mark on the country. After a year spent fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the closest thing his government has to a flagship policy is the much-trumpeted “levelling-up” agenda.

Officially the aim is to tackle the UK’s stark regional inequalities and “rebalance opportunities” across the country. Unofficially it’s about cementing Conservative support in traditional Labour strongholds in northern England and the Midlands.

But while the broad objectives may sound sensible, in recent weeks frustration with the policy has been growing. Some have denounced the agenda for being vague and ill-defined, while others have accused the flagship Levelling Up Fund and Towns Fund of being convenient conduits for pork barrel politics.

In an attempt to fend off critics and put the agenda back on track, the government promised that this week’s Queen’s Speech would be “jam-packed with measures to 'level up' the UK”. So how did it measure up to this promise?

The Queen’s Speech included a total of 28 new bills covering a broad range of issues, from healthcare and criminal justice to online safety and professional qualifications. Bizarrely, almost every area of policy is presented as contributing to the levelling-up agenda in some way ­– from the launch of a new anti-smoking strategy to the recruitment of more police officers.

But simply repeating a term over and over again doesn’t make it more convincing. In reality, precious little of the government’s legislative agenda will have any bearing on regional inequalities. Where legislative proposals are relevant, the solutions presented are far from convincing.

Precious little of the government’s legislative agenda will have any bearing on regional inequalities

A new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will introduce a Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which will expand the student loan system to cover four years of education at any time in life. While the prime minister said the scheme will be "rocket fuel" for the levelling-up agenda, it’s unclear how burdening struggling families – many of whom are already drowning in debt – with even more loans will help to narrow the UK’s economic divides.

A new Planning Bill will allegedly create a “simpler, faster and more modern planning system” that will promote homeownership and tackle the housing crisis. But by undermining local authorities and handing over more power to private developers, many housing experts believe the government’s reforms will make the housing crisis worse, not better.

The government will also deliver on its commitment to establish eight freeports, which we are told will “drive regeneration by bringing investment, trade and jobs”. However, experts say there is little evidence that freeports create additional jobs or boost economic growth, while others have warned they could lead to increased tax evasion and money laundering.

Meanwhile, legislation that would genuinely help to level up the country, such the long-awaited bills on workers’ rights and private renting reform, both of which were first promised in 2019, have once again been neglected or kicked into the long grass.

So despite the government’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, ‘levelling up’ remains a slogan without substance. But if the government’s legislative programme isn’t going to level up the country, what is it going to deliver? The answer is: something else entirely.

In the UK’s political system, a government can continue winning elections by suppressing critics and rigging democracy in its favour

Under the proposed Electoral Integrity Bill, it will no longer be possible to simply walk into a polling station, give your name and address, and cast a vote. Instead voters will be forced to show photographic ID at polling stations. While the government claims the measure is being introduced to “protect the integrity of elections”, critics say the move is a naked attempt at voter suppression. In 2015 it was estimated that 3.5 million UK citizens do not have access to photo ID, while 11 million don’t own a passport or a driver’s licence. Unsurprisingly, those voters are disproportionately poor, disadvantaged and non-white. Groups including the Electoral Reform Society, the Runnymede Trust and the Traveller Movement have warned that requiring voter ID could cause widespread disenfranchisement among minority communities (who, as it happens, tend not to vote Conservative).

This isn’t the only attack on democracy. After Labour dominated last week’s mayoral elections, the home secretary, Priti Patel, unveiled plans to change the electoral system. The reform involves switching all future English mayoral elections from the existing supplementary vote system – in which the public ranks their two favourite candidates – to the first-past-the-post system used in elections to the House of Commons. Political analysts say the move will make it easier for Conservatives to win future elections.

It’s not just elections that are in the government’s sights. The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill has been described by the human rights organisation Liberty as “an assault on basic civil liberties”. As well as dramatically curtailing the right to protest against government policies, the bill creates new stop-and-search powers and criminalises trespass – measures that could licence state harassment, ramp up racial profiling and threaten the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Academics have also expressed concern about the proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will enable speakers who are ‘no-platformed’ to sue universities for compensation. While the government claims the bill will “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England”, critics say it’s an attempt to impose a right-wing agenda on university campuses.

So while the government claims its main focus is levelling up, its legislative agenda suggests the priority is something rather different: cracking down on political dissent. After years spent dealing with Brexit and COVID-19, Johnson’s domestic priorities are finally becoming clear: reward those who vote Conservative, and suppress those who don’t.

Is this really a sustainable strategy? In most democracies, where coalitions and consensus building are the norm, the answer would be ‘no’. But in the UK’s winner-takes-all political system, it’s perfectly possible for a government to continue winning elections by suppressing critics and rigging the rules of democracy in its favour.

Can it be stopped? That depends on whether progressives are up to the task of defending our democracy and civil liberties from a creeping new authoritarianism.

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