Levelling up or letting down? The government’s failed promises for working people

Politicians have never had a particularly good reputation for keeping their promises. Trust in politicians was at the lowest on record at the end of 2021. This distrust in our elected representatives has reached new proportions in the past few months, exacerbated by a storm of headlines exposing the PM and his colleagues in a range of scandals.

The worrying reality of the situation is that this decline in trust is a consistent trend in the specific demographic of working-class voters that the Johnson premiership has persistently let down since its inception in 2019. A survey of 1200 UK workers in 2019 voted politicians as the least trusted profession in the UK – an assessment that is only likely to have gotten worse .


Workers’ rights not protected

This indicates that trust is not only about rhetoric and scandals, but about the conditions and relations of working life in Britain today. Distracted by firefighting a series of political crises, the government omitted the long-promised UK Employment Bill from the Queens Speech. Delayed for yet another year, it represents just the latest of the longstanding Conservative government’s heedless failures in protecting the rights of workers. A legacy of the May government’s Taylor Review of Modern Practices, the landmark Bill aimed to redefine the definition of ‘worker’ to encompass the vast and changing definitions of work in an uncertain global economy. The bill prioritised the rights of the most precarious workers, ensuring gig economy workers’ rights to the minimum wage, sick pay, banning the zero-hour contract as well as protecting against pregnancy discrimination.

After an uptick in interest during the pandemic, the disappearance of workers’ rights from the political agenda has been a recurring theme in the last months of political discourse. Only in February did the PM come under scrutiny for openly making claims about labour markets dismissed as ‘simply wrong’ by the UK Statistics Authority. The Prime Minister’s claims that more people are in work today than before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic were seen by many as conscious and deliberate attempt to deceive the public in a glorification of Johnson’s ‘Levelling-up agenda.’

The P&O Ferries scandal, however, increased public interest in workers’ rights, putting it back on the political agenda as the humiliating treatment of UK workers united the nation in a shared sense of abhorrence. The dismissal of 800 workers without notice served as a national reminder of how the prevailing hierarchy of the workplace benefits the employer, not the employee.

The P&O scandal saw a competition of moral outrage break out between the two main parties, with Keir Starmer accusing the PM of delivering a ‘half-arsed bluster and waffle’ in response to calls to better protect workers. It seems the only positive impact the Conservative government has had in the political conversation around work and employment has been to unite workers against them. It is becoming clear to some, at least, that Johnson and his government are letting down the very people they promised to protect in their election campaign of 2019.


Levelling up

The historical 2019 election saw Boris Johnson turn Labour strongholds blue, most notably the famous ‘Red Wall’ that crumbled under the weight of Johnson’s promises to invest in working-class towns through local growth deals and ‘Levelling Up’ skills using apprenticeships and a £3 billion National Skills Fund.

The prioritisation of good and honest work was at the core of the Conservative appeal, promoted through the promise to ‘Get Brexit done’ and the Levelling Up agenda. Under Johnson’s apparently charismatic persona, the Conservatives pledged to unite many disillusioned communities that felt geographically and symbolically detached from the politics of Westminster. The election saw the Conservatives win 80 seats, a landslide victory, and the greatest Conservative majority in Parliament since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 government.

However, despite working-class communities and their concerns sitting at the heart of the Conservative campaign, the promises of the Levelling Up agenda and the protection of workers’ rights seem to be at the bottom of the PM’s priority list.


Cost of living crisis

As Levelling Up falters across the UK, everyday working people are faced with new struggles in the shape of the cost-of-living crisis. As inflation rises, the poorest families and communities across the country suffer due to drops in real disposable incomes. The National Minimum Wage no longer keeps up with the cost of living for British families meaning that people are sacrificing basic daily needs to get by. These are the same working people that Johnson’s government promised wouldn’t be ‘left behind’ in 2019 and who placed their trust in a Prime Minister who, on his first day in the job, vowed to ‘close the opportunity gap’ and ‘level up across Britain with higher wages, and a higher living wage’.

The government’s meagre response to the burden of higher prices has been an insult to the communities that placed them in power almost 3 years ago. By continuing with increases to National Insurance Contributions on the 6th of April and approving a tax increase of 2% of GDP by 2024, workers may be left to wonder how the government imagines they will be able to afford it.

The government once again seems to be living out a familiar old story, in which the lives of ordinary working people are far from the primary concern of policymakers. The dream that the Conservatives sold voters with their ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has shown itself to be a slogan that was spun to get the votes of people who felt alienated from a political system that systematically failed them. In the clear light of day, today workers remain stuck in the same system of false promises, lies and deception.

Bethan Bushell is a research assistant and Economics student at the University of Bristol.

Image credit:  Andrew Martin