Making social science accessible

20 Sep 2021



For those plugged in to the goings-on of Whitehall, the phrase ‘levelling up’ has reached an almost unbearable saturation point, where it has come to mean anything and everything. For those less connected, it tends to produce varied reactions from dismissive cynicism to vague optimism, but with general confusion about what it actually means.

Because of its ubiquity and ambiguity, there are a lot of researchers currently trying to work out what the concept means, how it should be delivered, and how we will know if it has been successful. This has often led us to ignore another question: what is the history of levelling up? Where has it come from?

What is ‘levelling up’?

Before telling the history of the concept, it is useful to outline its basic meaning. At its simplest, levelling up is about tackling inequality between places, primarily by ‘creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline’. However, the government is clear that this is not about redistribution of wealth; as Boris Johnson put it, ‘[you can’t] make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer’. Therefore, although levelling up is first and foremost about reducing inequality between places (‘levelling’), it also about maintaining outcomes in all places (‘levelling up’).

How long have politicians been talking about ‘levelling up’?

The phrase (and the phrase ‘level up’) appears intermittently in the parliamentary records since the 19th century. It took particular prominence during the 1860s in a debate about the relative positions of the Anglican and Catholic churches in Ireland. In this debate, one member of the Lords made the useful observation that ‘you must arrive at equality either by levelling down or by levelling up’.

In the 20th century, the phrase became more about financial rather than religious equality, and it tended to be used in relation to government funding. For example, in the 1940s, during a war-time debate about benefits for soldier’s spouses, Labour MP John Parker asked ‘Cannot the anomaly be removed by levelling up the rates paid to the wives of serving men for the whole country to that paid in the London postal district?’.

In Parliament, usage of ‘levelling up’ grew slowly throughout the 20th century and increasingly related to the increase and equality of government spending.

‘Levelling up’ in the New Labour era

The history of the concept progressed through the New Labour era, and use of the term rose sharply. There was a narrowing of its meaning, primarily referring to social policy and specifically to the distribution of school funding. As a typical example, David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, explained that the government’s further education spending entailed ‘levelling up, not levelling down’.

In the same debate, an interesting response came from the future Prime Minister, Theresa May, who argued that ‘socialism is about levelling down. Conservatism is about levelling up. Socialists believe that, if everyone cannot have something, no one shall. Conservatives reject that.’ This is one of the first indications that ‘levelling up’ was to become a broader Conservative mantra, rather than simply an idiomatic or technical phrase.

From the mid-00s the phrase fell out of fashion, and became scarce over the following decade. Where it was used, it appeared in relation to a wide range of different topics. For example, it appeared in a debate on the gender pay gap in 2008, with Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone arguing that ‘equal pay [should] mean levelling up [the wages of women to men], not levelling down [the wages of men to women]’.

Levelling up and gaming

Our account of the history of the term now takes a slightly different turn. While the phrase was out of fashion in politics from the mid-00s to the mid-10s, it was booming elsewhere. In the world of gaming, it has long been a core concept.

In one sense it relates to the skills and abilities of a character within role playing games and video games. In such games, it is common for players to have a character that gains experience points, and then ‘levels up’, unlocking new attributes and possibilities. In another sense, ‘levelling up’ is to complete a stage in a video game and move onto the next one.

Throughout the 2010s, and particularly with the rise of the smartphone, gaming has become a mainstream pursuit, creating a positive societal affinity with ‘levelling up’, and of course with the dopamine hit that comes with it.

The first Conservative levelling up agenda

In 2016, the phrase then reappeared in the political discourse when Theresa May became Prime Minister – and so our history of levelling up returns to more conventional territory. It re-emerged with a very specific meaning in relation to equalising per pupil school funding, and ensuring that this equalisation did not, as Harriet Harman put it, ‘cut schools funding for the poorest children’.

From this debate, the then Education Secretary, Justine Greening, began to develop a broader agenda around the concept. This was most clearly outlined in the Department for Education’s white paper Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential. This largely unimplemented document outlined how education policy can be used to address the opportunity gap among young people under the strap-line ‘levelling up opportunity’.

The agenda was cut short by Greening’s departure in January 2018, and ‘levelling up’ was largely absent from the Hansard records that year.

The second Conservative levelling up agenda

Considering the associations with equality of opportunity and increased education funding, it is easy to see why the phrase appealed to Boris Johnson when he came to power in July 2019, at a time when he needed to bolster support among his party’s moderate wing. The association with education policy remained, and the 2019 Conservative Manifesto took some phrases word-for-word from Greening’s Unlocking Talent document.

However, new dimensions were added and ‘levelling-up’ became a commitment to greater regional equality in the post-Brexit era. This entailed a central concern with transport, broadband, and research and development investment, with a view to tackling inequalities in regional productivity.

Our history of the phrase closes with Johnson’s July 2021 speech, in which he reframed it – again. This time it was focused on inequalities in health, crime, and education. In the Johnson administration’s two years in power, the levelling up agenda has included many other dimensions besides, solidifying the slogan but overloading its meaning.

While levelling up is now quite clearly about tackling inequality between places, it remains entirely unclear which inequalities and which places it refers to. We can now look to November’s Levelling Up White Paper to provide some much-needed clarity. The LIPSIT research project has outlined some key tests for the White Paper in its new major report on the delivery of levelling up.

By Dr Jack Newman, Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. 


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