The PM’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is another victim of Westminster’s warped electoral logic

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 16th July 2021

The Prime Minister’s Levelling Up agenda – announced with great fanfare on Thursday – risks leaving swathes of the country ignored.

In not very subtle terms, the PM suggested new powers would only go to ideologically-aligned parts of England, with Boris Johnson saying he had previously abolished authorities ‘so genuinely hostile to business in such a way that government was forced to intervene’.

Newly devolved areas will get big cash injections – but how will ministers decide which areas win and which ones lose? If previous experience is anything to go by, these decisions will be shaped by electoral calculations.

Funds, Funds, Funds

Analysis of the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund in March found that among 93 English regions placed in the priority group of three tiers to receive cash, 31 were not ranked as in the top third most deprived places by average deprivation score. Of these 31, 26 are entirely represented by Conservative MPs.

The £3.8bn Towns Fund has previously been criticised for ‘pork barrel politics’, after analysis found the areas which ministers choose had an average majority of just 3,000. 60 of them were Conservative-held seats or Conservative targets. The Commons’ spending watchdog warned that a ‘lack of transparency’ over how money has been awarded could ‘fuel accusations of political bias’.

Warped logic of Westminster’s voting system

This sort of targeting is a factor of Westminster’s one-party-takes-all voting system, with large parts of the country deemed ‘unwinnable’ by parties, so not worth investing in.

ERS analysis in 2019 found that nearly 14 million voters were in seats that have not changed party hands since the Second World War, leading to resources being skewed away from them.

The government’s Levelling Up fund will look more like a Slush Fund if safe seats and non-Conservative areas continue to be ignored.

Why should voters in opposition areas be deprived of investment? Until we see a change to the rules of the game – with a fair, proportional electoral system – we will keep seeing this kind of pork barrel politics.

Nearly every party has supporters in nearly every bit of the country. With a proportional system such as the Single Transferable Vote, all parties would stand a fair chance of securing representation in multi-member seats – eroding the one-party fiefdoms and decades-long incumbencies seen across the country – and making all areas worth helping for governments looking to win support.

Areas ‘hostile to business’

The PM talks about areas ‘hostile to business’ as a justification for depriving areas of funding. But no area is entirely pro or anti-anything. Certainly, too many parts of England are entirely dominated by one party – but this is despite often a majority of voters backing other parties. Places are entirely dominated by one party due to the voting system – rather than punishing voters, he should reform our local elections so everyone is represented.

Previous studies have shown that opposition councils have borne the brunt of local government cuts over the past decade, while central government grants to English local authorities are larger for local authorities containing constituencies that might change hands than ones that won’t.

In 2019, the BBC found that Conservative-held constituencies were overwhelming beneficiaries of the government’s increase in schools funding.

The pork-barrel funds are a mirror image of the government’s overall approach to devolution, which has been offered in England in a piecemeal approach – and often with plenty of strings attached.

We need to see a consistent approach to regional investment and devolution, not driven by party advantage but the wishes and needs of local communities.

Backroom deals to dish out power

We have warned the ‘ad hoc’ approach to extending English devolution set out in the PM’s speech will add to fears of political favouritism. For voters to trust devolved institutions, we need a clear framework for determining which areas get extra powers – not back-room deals imposed by diktat.

The ‘flexible’ approach set out in the PM’s speech should be replaced with an assumption in favour of more powers for local areas, with local citizens assemblies deciding what is right for their area.

The ERS recently published its response to the House of Lords Constitution Committee inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK. We were clear that Westminster’s winner-takes-all voting system – and unelected House of Lords – is a centralising force, with one party pulling all the strings.

We need reform at the centre, so that local communities can finally take some power back.

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