Why ‘levelling up’ demands a new cross-party approach – Justine Greening

THE good news for my family this week was that, alongside a growing number of others, my 99-year-old grandmother, who lives in Rotherham, has now had her Covid-19 vaccination jab.

This was Justine Greening when she returned to Oakwood School, her former school, in 2017 as Education Secretary.
This was Justine Greening when she returned to Oakwood School, her former school, in 2017 as Education Secretary.

It’s a reminder that as challenging as the next few weeks will be, the steady progress on vaccinations happening all over Britain means we can turn the tide on beating this terrible virus.

And we can look ahead to what comes next.

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Lifting our country from the wreckage wreaked on so many families by Covid-19 will require a national effort and I believe that millions of people outside the political system are ready for the challenge of putting this country’s future back on track.

Boris Johnson is still to spell out the Government's 'levelling up' plan.

They will be volunteering and organising in all sorts of ways, putting time and effort into helping their local communities to help them get back on their feet.

Some will be helping out in our schools, others supporting those with mental health challenges, or helping those older members of our society who are more vulnerable. I know many businesses will play their role in this too.

This army of community helpers, wherever they originate from, represent a resilient backbone of our country that we can be truly proud of.

But alongside that wider effort, we need our politicians collectively mobilised too. Now more than ever, Britain will also rely on strong leadership, not just from the Prime Minister but all those MPs, from whatever party, representing communities in Westminster. We cannot go back to business as usual in politics.

Justine Greening is a Conservative politician and former Education Secretary. She was born in Rotherham.

Of course, there is the need both within and outside Westminster to hold politicians of all colours to account. But we need constructive debate that builds a common path forward, not destructive debate and simply puts up more barriers and divisions.

It’s time for our political system to swing behind a mission on levelling up that transcends party politics. A pandemic-weary public wants to see our political class set aside differences and come together behind a broader national plan to level up opportunities in Britain and make the country work 
more fairly. We must build back better.

That plan should set out for the first time the levelling-up goals that we need to achieve to substantially level up Britain and they should be goals we can all collectively get behind.

Our political system should embrace the fact that it does not have all the solutions when it comes to delivering a levelled-up Britain.

Is Parliament capable of working on a cross-party basis over the levelling up agenda?

Communities, businesses and universities need to play their role transforming Britain too and our politics must connect up to that huge effort already underway.

In a country that has had much division in recent years, I believe that equality of opportunity – people having the same chance to get on in life whoever they are – is that rare issue that we can all agree on.

Yet delivering on it will take a much more systemic and smarter approach than has been possible in the past. That means a plan that tackles the gaps in life chances that open up from the word go and then cascade through our lives: some children make far less progress in school than others and have home circumstances less able to support their wider development.

We’ve seen the digital divide and access to technology – both the hardware and also the access to data – emerge as a key barrier to keeping education going during lockdown.

Levelling down often happens because people don’t have the right connections, know the right places to look for opportunity, or it’s so far away it cannot be reached.

Meanwhile for others, housing conditions make it virtually impossible to study or work at home, or they have health or disability challenges that end up blocking off the chance for careers in a way that is wholly unacceptable, unnecessary and see us waste talent on an industrial scale. 

We must set our levelling-up goals and raise our collective ambition high – achieving them and achieving levelling up by looking to the longer term. We often talk about ‘responsible business’, but it’s time for responsible politics too.

It would be the ultimate tragedy for Britain if the political parties that in practice represent our day-to-day democracy became not the enablers of change but the blockers – too busy arguing to be able to rise to the challenge that so many millions of others – individuals, businesses, universities, educators and charities already are.

Personal leadership is something we can all show in how we act for the good of our country. We know how much it matters right now for ensuring that the latest, and hopefully the last, Covid-19 lockdown can claim not a single extra life than possible.

But if that leadership matters now, it will be just as important for achieving what comes after Covid-19 – a successful Britain through levelling up opportunities.

We can and should expect a lead from those who would lead us. A wider country is ready, but is Parliament fit for purpose in delivering a levelled-up Britain?

I certainly hope so.

Justine Greening is a Tory politician and former Education Secretary. She was born in Rotherham.

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