As we wait for the government’s white paper on ‘levelling up’, many people are asking what it means and how do we achieve this in practice. I’ve just written a report for Equally Ours showing that we can only level up the UK by tackling inequality between people as well as places: a more equal society is the key to our shared prosperity.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities between people, not just places. It has shown that some of us have fewer opportunities because of our sex, race, disability, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, migration status, amongst others. And it has shown how these factors intersect and combine to produce unfair outcomes, leaving some individuals and groups at much higher risk of covid and its wider social and economic impacts.
During lockdown, women, Black, and minority ethnic workers were more likely to be key workers, exposed to greater risk of Covid-19, or working in closed-down sectors such as cleaning and catering. When schools closed, the task of home schooling fell mainly to women, reinforcing inequalities in their working lives. As we head into the next phase, the government’s own figures show that the future looks bleak for the youngest and oldest workers. Under 25’s will find it harder to get into the labour market, while over 50’s risk being locked out permanently.
With covid itself, mortality rates have been much higher for disabled people, and higher still for people with learning disabilities. Black and Asian people have been more likely to die from it than other ethnic groups. Reflecting on the reasons for this, Michael Gove, now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, has said ‘there can be no doubt that they reflect structural inequality in our society which has to be addressed’.
It is precisely these structural inequalities in society that the levelling up agenda needs to address.
We need to tackle discrimination and other barriers that hold people back. And put in place the firm foundations that will enable us to build back better, for the long term: fair and decent work for all who can, security for those who can’t; safe, secure and affordable housing; universal public services.
Its not about a pot of money here or there. All government policies and actions should set out how they will advance equality. Without this, we all lose out and already marginalised people will be pushed further to the margins.
As the report argues, equality is about making a reality of our common humanity and the fact that we are all born equal in worth, dignity and rights. To be effective, levelling up must enable all of us to realise our rights in practice. We can build back better, creating more inclusive social structures and institutions and an economy that works for all.
The report is available from Equally Ours