British voters across all parties seem to be calling Johnsonâs bluff on âlevelling upâ
A Tory chancellor eager for austerity will struggle to get away with echoing George Osborneâs mendacious old trope that the country has âmaxed out its credit cardâ. Whatever the Treasuryâs debts, there is no public appetite for retrenchment, according to the latest Ipsos Mori poll. Two-thirds want to pay higher taxes to go towards social care and easing NHS waiting lists. Whatâs more, there is virtually no difference between Labour and Tory voters on this. A mere 9% want spending cuts to pay off the deficit.
Votersâ apparent willingness to pay more tax to spend on vital things is encouraging. The NHS always touches a political nerve â as anyone might fall under a bus. But itâs heartening to find that 60% of respondents are prepared to pay higher taxes to reach the net zero target for carbon emissions â and that includes 52% of Tory voters. Not long ago, using the R-word â redistribution â was, pollsters warned, a vote-killer, yet now 51% are ready to pay more tax for âlevelling upâ regional inequalities. This goodwill fluctuates slightly, but, says Ipsos Moriâs Gideon Skinner, the rejection of austerity that began in 2015 has grown and âthe Covid response has encouraged big state actionâ. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is battling for cuts, so why is he so popular? âVoters still associate him with furloughing largesse,â says Skinner, helped by his âeat out to help outâ scheme. But that canât survive his autumn spending review permafrost plans for three years ahead.
Small-state Thatcherism is being blown back by US intellectual headwinds, as Joe Bidenâs $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed through the Senate this week with bipartisan support â with another lavish new deal-style bill on social support to come. All the UKâs political divides are there in the polling, but on spending they are less deep than you might expect. Young people are considerably keener to pay to reach net zero, as their future chances of survival burn up before their eyes. Older people are keener to raise tax for their social care than for the planet. But across the board, a majority want more tax and spend on three essentials: NHS and social care, climate catastrophe and greater equality.
But they are pessimistic that the government will actually do what they want: only a quarter expect an increase in spending. On this, sadly, they are right: the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows spending plans at the last budget cut another 8% from all but three departments.
Hereâs the Boris Johnson conundrum: as he raises airy expectations in verbose speeches on climate action or levelling up, he may indeed be influencing voters, Tory as well as Labour. He never mentions any price to pay: voters seem to be ahead of him here. But, swayed by his partyâs right wing more than by the polling, he retreats from every hard choice. The FT on Thursday reports that he is backing off his pledge to ban gas boilers by 2035, though domestic buildings cause 21% of UK greenhouse gas emissions and the CBIâs own heat commission says new gas boilers must go by 2025. This weekâs analysis by the conservation charity WWF of the UK budget finds Johnson spending many times more on measures that increase emissions than on policies to tackle the climate crisis. Hardly a day passes without data revealing the yawning gaps between his windy âtargetsâ and his actions.
No one was any the wiser on what his âlevelling upâ meant after his airily policy-free speech last month. But he was good at evoking the shocking depths of deprivation: âA woman from York has on average a decade longer of healthy life expectancy than a woman from Doncaster.â âWhy should income per head in Monmouthshire be 50% higher than in Blaenau Gwent?â Why do âtwo-thirds of graduates from our top 30 universities end up in Londonâ? And a majority agree that these are problems that need solving. But no, no, of course he wonât âdecapitate the tall poppiesâ of southern seats such as Chesham and Amersham in his âmission to unite and level up across the whole UKâ.Johnsonâs levelling up plan lacks definition and planning, say MPs Read more
He may hope emotive rhetoric disguises inaction, as he re-announced small sums and offered tiny gifts, such as Â£50m for football pitches, nowhere near replacing the 710 cut in the last round of austerity. Preposterous metaphors â âthe ketchup of catch-upâ â may obscure FT data revealing his Â£4.8bn âlevelling-upâ fund funnels cash to Tory seats by ignoring measures of deprivation, so richer Richmond (MP: Sunak) and Newark (MP: Robert Jenrick) rank above Barnsley and Salford for pork barrelling. But opening a new coal mine just as Cop26 approaches, or cutting Â£20 a week from the lowest earnersâ universal credit, would blow against those prevailing winds of public opinion stirred by himself.
In that speech Johnson unwisely referred to how the former East Germany now has a higher GDP per capita than north-east England, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Wales or Northern Ireland. But he said nothing of what that epic act of levelling up cost the Germans. Over 31 years, charging an annual 5.5% âsolidarity surtaxâ on every citizen, they have transferred $2tn from west to east. The results are phenomenal: the economic power of the east, where only 10% had telephones in 1989, rose from 43% to 75% of the westâs. Even so, young easterners still feel left behind, earning 17% less and filling only 1.7% of Germanyâs top jobs. Even if not yet fully levelled up, the east overtaking our poor regions is a fine example of what a country can do to unify and equalise. But absolutely nothing about Johnson or his ministers suggests they intend a fraction of that heavy lifting, just a little window dressing with some Boris-branded show projects. They plan none of the devolution of money and powers that research by the IPPR thinktank shows could achieve better results.
Polling suggests a majority of voters are out ahead of this government, more willing to take these gigantic challenges seriously. How much are they willing to pay? Thatâs unknowable. But Johnson and his soundbites may be encouraging people to want a far more ambitious country than he and his small-statist cabinet would ever tolerate.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist