The fundamental flaw of Levelling Up

For a long time ‘Levelling Up’ was widely derided as a slogan in search of a policy. With last week’s much-delayed Levelling Up White Paper, we now have lots of policies – 400 pages of them. However, the search to identify the essential causes of lower levels of prosperity and growth in some parts of the UK has missed the mark.

Aspiring to raise living conditions for all, with an emphasis on the most deprived, is a worthy goal. But turning hope into an effective plan needs to start with ‘the why’ to identify successfully ‘the what’ that needs to be addressed. For all its length, the white paper fails to unearth what’s been holding back local, regional and national growth and prosperity. The government continues to evade the fundamental driver for deficient living circumstances countrywide – namely, an economy that has been stuck in depressed conditions for half a century.

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How to bring about a high-wage economy

According to some pundits, the empty petrol stations and gaps on supermarket shelves are a forewarning of another ‘winter of discontent’ – a reference to 1978-9, when widespread strike action brought the UK to a standstill.

In the energy crisis, some see a return to the oil crisis of 1973-4, when OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the likes of the UK and the US because of their support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

And, as prices rise across the board, there is a great deal of speculation about a return of 1970s-style ‘stagflation’, when economic stagnation co-existed with sharply rising prices, precipitating a cost-of-living crisis.

As evocative as these trips down economic memory lane are, they do not help us understand what is going on today. The general fashion for reaching for old labels, such as new New Deals or new Cold Wars, to describe the present often obscures what is distinctive about the contemporary moment – and this certainly applies to our current economic situation.

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A ‘rebound’ to the Old Normal is not good enough

At the end of April, Barclays boss Jes Staley was forecasting that 2021 would see the strongest boom in Britain since the aftermath of the Second World War. The emerging consensus among economists is only a little less ebullient in anticipating the fastest pace of growth since 1989. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, captured the upbeat mood: ‘As I’ve been saying for months – drawing on the economics of coiled springs, and crouching tigers, and “Chicken Lickens” – I do think more likely than not we are [set] for a rapid-fire recovery. That is coming, and I think that is coming soon.’

The upgraded forecasts for Britain’s economic growth this year and next from the likes of the IMF and the EY ITEM Club are quite feasible. However, it is short-sighted to think a rapid bounce-back over the next year or so will mean a robust long-term recovery. Moreover, talk of a ‘great rebound’ could also reinforce the tendency of successive governments to abandon their economic responsibilities to help the private sector create new growth sectors with enough decent well-paying jobs for people.

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