Levelling up has to be government’s first priority

Levelling up has to be government’s first priority

Most of us want to believe that we live in a meritocratic country, where hard work and talent take you further than who your parents are or where you went to school. Where people want different things, in different amounts, so your life is gloriously different from mine.

When each of us gets an equal opportunity to make the most of our lives, our society is fundamentally fair, regardless of the circumstances into which we were born.

But that’s miles away from where the United Kingdom is today. That’s why “levelling up” is so important, and why it has to be so much more than a public works programme of better rail and road links for forgotten parts of the country.

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Those are essential too, but they won’t be nearly enough without equally serious social changes to go alongside them.

Because not everyone has the same opportunities, the state must take the lead in fixing deep-rooted inequalities between different parts of the country and sections of society that undermine equal opportunities by leading to unequal outcomes in cognitive development, educational attainment, social capital, health and life expectancy.

One way to achieve this would be to equalise incomes and remove all privately held wealth. But that would be levelling down, not up, and most people think it would be unfair to remove all those rewards and incentives for hard work too.

We have made respectable progress on the more obvious barriers to equal opportunities, such as overt racial and gender discrimination, but not nearly enough.

As US President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

That means we’ve got to tackle barriers to opportunity like where we are born; your ethnicity; my gender or sexuality; our family’s income; whether we are disabled. All these things stand in the way of making sure that, in modern Britain, no one’s birth should be their destiny any more.

Take child poverty. Growing up in poverty affects children’s cognitive development. Parents might be working multiple jobs and still struggling to put food on the table or to afford adequate and stable accommodation.

Poverty constricts people’s choices and shapes their thinking, making it harder to identify opportunities and to work towards realising them. Poverty constrains people’s social capital and their capacity to take risks, making it harder to compete for opportunities even if they manage to get good qualifications.

And poverty can permeate entire neighbourhoods, embedding low expectations and negative social norms, and restricting the supply of opportunities at the source.

So levelling up requires us to build a society of better, stronger and more equally spread opportunities. And that means fixing the causes of poverty rather than just temporarily bandaging the symptoms.

We’ve got to remove the barriers and glass ceilings that limit your or my life chances, rather than compensating for them after the damage is done. That will mean big improvements in early years education and care, carrying on driving up standards in primary and secondary education everywhere, and skewering the snobbery that currently divides our higher and further education systems.

And we’ve got to ensure that job offers, training and promotions are handed out purely on merit, by excluding selection criteria that favour those from more privileged backgrounds, such as extra-curricular activities.

But we also need to tackle the economic causes of poverty, including the spiralling cost of living, our dysfunctional housing market, low pay, underemployment and insecure work.

Building a more meritocratic country can heal our rancorous politics, repair our fractured society and rebalance our economy. Nothing is more pressing or urgent.

John Penrose is MP for Weston, Worle and the Villages and chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum. Will Snell is chief executive of the Fairness Foundation.