Tackling Regional Inequality or ‘Levelling Up’?

David Featherstone and Diarmaid Kelliher reflect on Doreen Massey’s relevance for the current political conjuncture   

On the day of Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2021, Andy Burnham wrote in the Guardian that “if the prime minister were to commit today to London-level bus fares for Greater Manchester and elsewhere in England” the effect would be that “finally, ‘levelling up’ would mean something.”

Burnham has passionately and valuably critiqued the links between the government’s disastrous response to Covid and geographical inequalities in the UK. But his intervention was notable for broadly accepting the political framing of the Johnson government, encapsulated by the phrase ‘levelling up’. How can the left approach questions of regional inequality and the politics of place differently?

A recently published collection of Doreen Massey’s political writings provides important resources for rethinking how these issues are being discussed in the current political conjuncture.  Born in Manchester in 1944, Massey lived most of her adult life in London, and taught at the Open University from 1982 until her retirement, but continued to be active politically until her untimely death in 2016. England’s north-south divide shaped her political and intellectual life.As a politically engaged, left-wing geographer, one of Massey’s key contributions was to politicise questions of regional inequality and challenge the established terms of debate.

Massey insisted that it is necessary to understand the broader processes that have produced geographical divisions. Shepositioned regional inequality as an active product of political struggles and decisions, rather than a chance happening or a result of the inherently less ‘competitive’ nature of certain areas. Her work traced and critiqued the long history of geographical inequality in the UK, which were entrenched by neoliberalism, and sought to foreground attempts to struggle over and contest these changes.

The relationship between class and geography is crucial here.In ‘A New Class of Geography’, first published by Marxism Today in 1988, Massey explained how “the unequal geography of Thatcherism is closely tied in with the government’s championing of the cause of certain already privileged groups. These groups are the basis of the higher levels of average prosperity in the outer areas of the south and east of the country.” In Massey’s terms, rather than accepting such unequal patterns at face value, it was necessary to engage with the geographically unequal relations of power that led to and reproduced such inequalities.

The relationship between class and geography has been prominent in recent UK political debate, but usually in extremely reductive forms. During the 2016 EU referendum and in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, ‘ordinary working-class people’ were conjured by politicians in ways that assumed the working class to exist only in an ill-defined ‘north’. This rhetorical working class was often portrayed as white, male, and straight, characterised by social conservatism and a parochial attachment to their local areas. ‘Levelling up’ as employed by Johnson is rooted in such a vision.

Massey understood that attachments to local areas could be regressive. In ‘Places and their Pasts’, from 1995, she expressed unease at how political mobilisations in parts of London’s Docklands were based on an essentialised understanding of it as a ‘white working class’ place. But she also saw the potential for local attachments to be shaped by solidarities, internationalisms, and progressive relations. Crucial here was to understand places as the site of struggle and of difference, rather than being defined by singular stories.

These commitments shaped her engagement with political alternatives in important ways, notably in her direct involvement with the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980s. In a recent essay, Rhian E Jones has emphasised how “democratic localism” can provide an alternative to ‘levelling up’. She argues that “places like Preston and Salford, where Labour is shaping a more radical agenda’, offer ‘”a possibility for renewal that is a clear alternative to the direction the party is taking nationally.” These current forms of “new municipalism” are taking inspiration from important histories of innovative left politics at local or municipal level, including the 1980s GLC.

But we also need to learn from the limitations of previous municipal projects. Massey emphasised how the economic programme developed in 1980s London stayed within the established boundaries set by capitalism. Notably, she insisted that any economic strategy that sought to go beyond mere formal ‘equal opportunities’ and had ‘”o think about the very shape of the economy itself, and about the division between what it currently called economic and currently called social.” Massey’s feminist commitment to reconfiguring notions of the economy in ways which critiqued narrow, male-dominated approaches to development remains essential today.  

As Rhian E Jones argues, there are alternative ways to think about geographical divisions which can be about challenging unequal forms of power. It is necessary to build these strategies in opposition to the use of ‘levelling up’ as a vague, populist slogan underpinned by imaginaries of racial division, rooted in broader ‘Culture Wars’ narratives.

Further, Massey’s writings emphasise that the politics of place in not inevitably parochial and limiting, it can be configured in open, internationalist and solidaristic ways. These are intellectual resources that can help to renew and deepen left imaginaries in opposition both to the pernicious forms of harsh right-wing politics of the Conservatives and the timid patriotisms offered in response by the current Labour leadership.

Doreen Massey: Selected Political Writings, eds David Featherstone and Diarmaid Kelliher, published by Lawrence & Wishart, is available here.

Online launch event of Doreen Massey: Selected Political Writings, hosted by Housmans Bookshop, with editors David Featherstone and Diarmaid Kelliher,joined by Hilary Wainwright, Ulises Moreno-Tabarez and Amelia Horgan. Sign up here.

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