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Opinion

The universal credit uplift and a rent arrears fund - that's what levelling up really looks like

There are a couple of small things Boris Johnson could do to genuinely help level up, immediately, writes editor Paul McNamee.

Boris Johnson stands at a podium with government warnings, with his head bowed

In May 2020 Boris Johnson instructued the UK to "to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives." Image: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

When the leader of the opposition, Gary Neville, stood up last week to condemn the government cut to universal credit, he made an interesting point.

For him, at the core, was the rhetoric of division. The “brutal” slashing of the £20 uplift that was keeping so many people afloat – including a significant percentage in employment, a fact that is conveniently glossed over by many – was couched in language of the other.

From Neville’s perspective there was a loaded implication that the people benefitting were lazing about on their couches watching TV and gorging on the fat of the land.

There is a traceable line to this from George Osborne’s strivers vs shirkers invective that informed so much austerity policy. The current administration under Boris Johnson is pushing hard on the better-to-work-than-claim-benefits line.

On the face of it, that’s a sensible approach, but there is much underlying it that needs to be addressed. And the PM doesn’t strike as a man with much time for anything that requires deep consideration.

At present, tied to this, his government is also pushing the Brexit revisionism hard – it was not REALLY about sovereignty and taking back control and getting more than £350m a week for the NHS.

It was about changing the employment environment so the outward movement of overseas workers would increase the chances of people from Britain taking the jobs at higher wages.

It was a part of levelling up. According to the PM’s Conservative Party speech, this levelling up means HGV drivers won’t have to pee in bushes. There may have been more to it but it was lost in the Thomas Gray/beaver/North London drugs hoohah.

While the cry may be of levelling up, it’s hard to shake the perception that it is preaching not practice

Again, it’s hard to argue that increasing wages is bad. Better workers’ rights and wages have been a baseline demand for a host of advocates for centuries.

The problem is that the current revisionist rhetoric is already starting to unravel. Economists from left and right are warning that the best way to drive up wages is to drive up demand and productivity. Both of these may suffer as markets close abroad and supplies at home are limited.

The other key element, tied to what Neville was getting at, is perception.

While the cry may be of levelling up, it’s hard to shake the perception that it is preaching not practice. When key party donors are named in the Pandora Papers as having enriched themselves in dodgy deals, and when party elders are partying like it’s the fall of Rome on the day before hundreds of thousands have £20 a week swiped from them, it doesn’t feel like an egalitarian raise-the-boats-of-all approach.

There are a couple of small things the government could do to genuinely help level up, immediately, for those on the line between swimming and sinking. Keep the £20 uplift. Even Iain Duncan Smith has called for that.

And establish a rent arrears fund. For several hundred million pounds (the figure varies from £288m to around £450m, depending on the metric used), which in the grand scheme of Covid cost is small, the Westminster government could wipe out the rent debt accrued by millions who lost so much income during lockdown.

There are some schemes available to help with some debt, at a devolved level, but this would be a large-scale, UK-wide approach. It would put people on an even keel. It would sort things for landlords too, so everybody is on the level.

All those worries and the mental anguish, all the fears over debts that just can’t be paid, all that threat of homelessness could be gone.

It’s pretty straightforward.

That is levelling up.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue
Paul.McNamee@bigissue.com @PauldMcNamee

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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