18 November 2021

Why Levelling Up presents huge political risks for Boris Johnson

By Tom Waterhouse

Plenty of polls show that Levelling Up, once understood, is popular with the public. It’s also a common view that pouring billions into northern England and the Midlands will cement Conservative gains in the Red Wall, securing another decade in power. But recent polling by Public First suggests public opinion is more complex, and that Levelling Up in fact presents huge political risks for the Government.

When we undertook polling and focus groups on the subject recently for Homes for the North, the overall picture was clear. Levelling Up is not yet well understood – in fact most people haven’t heard of it. The public does, however, support the underlying principles; they agree there has been under-investment in areas outside London for years, and more money should be spent to correct this. They want to see this funding directed towards places with high unemployment and poverty and to see visible, tangible results off the back of it. What was very clear was that investing in high streets and housing would make Levelling Up seem real, and show it was working. So far, so straightforward.

But we also asked people whether they agreed with this statement: ‘Given how much the UK has spent dealing with Covid, the Government should wait until the national debt is lower before going ahead with the levelling up agenda’ – 41% agreed, with 27% disagreeing and 9% not sure. The support for this view was even stronger among Conservative voters, but Labour voters backed it as well. So too did voters in the North of England – the region most people expect to benefit from Levelling Up spending.

The figures are quite striking. It suggests voters are more sceptical about high levels of public spending than we realised. While the public was reassured by the Government’s willingness to write cheque after cheque during the pandemic, it seems minds are now turning to how the Covid bill will be settled – and who is going to pay it. The public is already being asked to stump up more National Insurance to help deal with the backlogs in the NHS. Worryingly for the Government, it’s working-class voters who are now the low tax voters, not southern professionals.

That was one of a number of key findings in another recent Public First poll, this time for the Taxpayers’ Alliance. As their limited disposable income has been eaten into by higher taxes and higher prices to a much greater extent than professionals’ income, it’s no wonder working-class voters are becoming more concerned about high taxes. The poll also found that working-class voters are more likely to think the Government wastes money. While professional voters were much more likely than working-class voters to say that some money was wasted by Government (but not enough to be a problem), working-class voters were much more likely than professionals to say that ‘most of it’ was wasted. It seems working-class voters are the hardest to convince about the merits of a high tax, high spend approach. 

And it’s about to become even harder.

We are most probably heading towards a cost of living crisis within the next six months. As well as the NI rise hitting at the end of April (coming out of pay packets for the first time in the week before polling day for the local elections), council tax bills are also set to increase. Citizens Advice say that average energy bills have soared by £400 since December and will carry on getting more expensive. All this against a backdrop of inflation, with the Bank of England warning price rises could go above 4% and stay high. This feels like a very tough environment to sell multi-billion pound government spending plans. Indeed, today’s news that the Manchester-Leeds leg of HS2 looks likely to be scrapped suggests the Government is already having to rein in some of its own spending commitments. 

The trouble is, the next election is looming. There’s not much time at all to demonstrate you’ve made a difference in people’s everyday lives, let alone ‘rebalance’ the economy. The pressure is on to find something, anything, to point to that says progress on Levelling Up is underway. The temptation may be to just shovel money out of the door. October’s Budget had a lengthy list of spending commitments with a Levelling Up badge slapped on them. But will Red Wall voters really reward the Conservatives for taking more cash out of their pockets to spend on bridges and cycle lanes?

Perhaps we have here the first hint that the public think the spending taps need a few clockwise turns. Sinking large amounts of taxpayers’ money into Levelling Up without a clear return on investment could turn what was a re-election asset into a huge liability. What is certain is that in polling, asking the right questions to understand the true context always pays off.

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Tom Waterhouse is an associate director at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.