Levelling up as a political spectacle

Levelling up, if interpreted as what political scientists at the University of Southampton, writing in a recent edition of The Political Quarterly*, call ‘political spectacle’, may already be judged a success for the Conservative government in Tees Valley even if it is not necessarily bringing about real long-term economic improvement.

Will Jennings and his colleagues see the Conservative Party’s levelling up agenda in the context of a realignment of British politics in which people who feel they have been neglected for decades and have lost status to other groups in society have swung to the right on cultural issues, holding socially conservative attitudes, and to the left on economic issues, demanding greater state intervention.

Levelling up as a response to this discontent may be confused and incoherent, recognising it as a problem but addressing it only tentatively so far, and wrestling with inherent contradictions, say the authors. But the Conservatives’ opponents should not assume that voters will necessarily punish them as a result, for the problem itself is being posed in new and different terms:

‘Levelling up may succeed through redefining redistribution to be more about status, recognition and standing rather than resources or equitable outcomes. Furthermore, creating a narrative of success may be more important than major policy impacts,’ write the authors. Such a narrative will be framed, they say, by using symbols and tokens such as a few big infrastructure projects in the north, a scattering of freeports and gigafactories, refreshed high streets and an exodus of civil servants to the regions.

This type of levelling up, they add, reflects an increasing tendency to govern through political spectacle – regional visits and photo opportunities by ministers wearing hard hats and high visibility jackets. Governing through such political spectacle encourages a focus on symbolic acts rather than the more difficult business of constructing a levelling up agenda that resolves contradictions such as the need for investment and the prospect of continuing austerity after covid.

There also remains an unresolved ambiguity about the geography of levelling up – is it about the north-south divide or differences between cities and peripheral areas, in which case city growth could reinforce inequalities within regions? This is a serious issue in the North East, where Newcastle is seen by many in other parts of the region as the main beneficiary of economic development. That was an important factor both in Tees Valley’s division from the northern part of the region in 2010 and acceptance of a devolution deal in 2016, and in the refusal of the four south of Tyne councils to accept a deal of which Newcastle would have been part, also in 2016. Local politicians are still struggling with the consequences of that decision – or perhaps just hoping the problem will go away.

In voting for devolution in 2016, Tees Valley’s leaders chose to go down the route that has delivered political spectacle. That may not have been what they were consciously choosing in 2015-16, but by the time local voters re-elected Mayor Ben Houchen in 2021 they knew what they were getting. In return for accepting a devolution deal, electing a Tory mayor and new Tory MPs, and overturning their Labour councils, they have their Treasury campus, their freeport, and other investments. They are also getting used to hosting visits by the Prime Minister and other ministers. Houchen is himself a master of spectacle politics, with his frequent hard-hat photo opportunities and his policy showpiece of Teesside International Airport, from which he and a camera are never far distant. After decades as a backwater, living in Newcastle’s shadow, Tees Valley has regained recognition, status and a sense of identity, even if its economic metrics are no better,

Seen in terms of this type of spectacle politics, say the authors, it seems likely that levelling up is destined to succeed. Though they do not mention Tees Valley by name, they must have had in mind the narrative that Mayor Houchen has so successfully created there since 2017 when writing this passage:

‘Over the coming years, this agenda will offer the government numerous opportunities for symbolic policies and projects that enable it to narrate a national story of levelling up, of “unleashing” the potential of the country – generating a steady flow of images of the PM and ministers visiting manufacturing firms, science labs, R&D centres, and sites of infrastructure projects that let voters know the government is hard at work. The opening of a new HM Treasury economic campus in the North of England [at Darlington] is one of the latest examples.’

Tees Valley can expect more prime ministerial visits in the years to come.

The North East councils that rejected devolution in 2016 now face a difficult decision: should they change their minds, follow Tees Valley’s example and potentially play the Conservative Party’s political game or should they resist and sacrifice whatever investments may come their way? Should they regard £30m a year for investment in the economy, promised for 30 years, as not peanuts after all, which is how they treated it then, but worth accepting now along with the added powers and responsibilities that go with devolution, just as Tees Valley’s politicians pragmatically accepted their £15m deal? More importantly, perhaps, should they recognise that splitting the Tyneside economy between north and south, which was a consequence of their rejection of devolution and consequent split in 2016, makes no sense and agree to reunite?

Perhaps they have left it too late, anyway. Jennings and his co-authors see levelling up largely in terms of towns and smaller places rather than either regions or metropolitan areas like Tyne and Wear, while the Conservatives certainly see it in terms of party politics. The North East (as opposed to Tees Valley) may no longer look either attractive or necessary to ministers as a devolution partner. The government has already done deals covering all of England’s other metropolitan areas and the Conservatives are already winning council and parliamentary seats in Northumberland and Durham. Tyne and Wear’s five metropolitan councils and 12 parliamentary seats remain solidly Labour, but maybe the Tories think they can get along without them. The North East is in danger of being left out of even the meagre real benefits that levelling up as a political spectacle can offer.

*The Politics of Levelling Up. By Will Jennings, Lawrence McKay and Gerry Stoker. The Political Quarterly. 2021.

Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton and co-founder of the Centre for Towns; Lawrence McKay is Research Fellow at the University of Southampton; Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at the University of Southampton. The research is supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council award: ‘Trust and Trustworthiness in Natiional and Global Governance’ (ES/009809/1).