The present government has made the territorial targeting of funds central to its programme. In the name of ‘levelling up’, it will distribute large tranches of funds to projects put forward by local authorities. The overall allocation of funds could be governed by a funding formula which favoured areas of low growth and relative deprivation across the country, including those parts of the north of England that elected Conservative MPs in 2019.
However, as Chris Hanretty has shown, it is impossible to replicate the government’s decisions on the allocation of the Towns Fund without including an indicator of Conservative marginality in the formula, and it is likely that other levelling-up funding will exhibit a similar bias. There are numerous examples in recent political history of governments targeting funds to marginal constituencies in an effort to win over wavering voters, but this government is shaping up to deliver pork on an unusually large scale.
Targeting funds to marginal constituencies?
The idea of allocating funding to marginal constituencies in order to win over voters is superficially attractive. The chattering classes might complain that it misuses public funds for party political purposes, but the local election results in May 2021 suggest that the public do not care much about this kind of low-level corruption. Indeed, it is arguable that an electorate with low trust in government expects its politicians to behave in such ways.
When politicians bribe you to vote for them, they are not pretending to have a vision for the country’s future and an altruistic propensity to work hard to achieve it. They are just looking after their own interests. Their behaviour is, in the deadly contemporary argot, ‘authentic’. They are also not patronising you: they expect you, the voter, to be as opportunistic and calculative as they are, when you enter the transaction to exchange your vote for their largesse.
Safe seat Tory MP losers
We cannot expect voters to be outraged by pork barrel politics, but the government may still find that the policy does it more harm than good. It cannot ensure ‘pork for all’ even with its current disdain for fiscal rectitude. There will be losers as well as winners, and the losers’ grievances may be hard to shake off.
First among the potentially aggrieved losers are Tory MPs in safe seats. In parliamentary systems, pork is expected to go to marginal seats because there is assumed to be strong party discipline, which ensures that the allocation is designed to strengthen the party’s overall electoral position. MPs from safe seats which miss out on the largesse should be mollified by the knowledge that, if their party fails to win or hold the marginal seats, it will not form the next government. Individual interests are thereby aligned with the party’s interest.
But the claim that MPs from safe seats should be content to see pork go to marginal seats is a static argument. Over time, MPs from safe seats will ask themselves what their party does for them. If the governing party is entirely transactional rather than ideological, and its policies targeted and particularistic rather than general, then its MPs from safe seats may become disillusioned. This disillusionment will be heightened if safe seats start to look less safe, a process that may already be underway in parts of the South, going by the 2021 local election results.
Also an irritant on the government side are inefficiencies in the use of pork to buy marginal votes at Westminster. One problem is the egoism of some MPs, keen to demonstrate their personal influence. The decision to favour the constituencies of the ministers involved in allocating the Towns Fund, Jenrick and Sunak, suggests this element cannot be ignored. Neither of their constituencies is the least bit marginal. Jenrick and Sunak seem to have fallen victim to the need to demonstrate that they really are powerful and important men.
There is also the problem that the centralised political system is a magnet for blame. The government has been keen to ensure that pork is attributed to local MPs, but it does not follow symmetrically that failure to get pork will be blamed on the inadequate efforts of the local representative. Behind the name-checking, everyone knows that decisions about which areas get what are made centrally.
Treasury ministers may enjoy the power of allocating funds for political advantage, but they won’t enjoy the endless carping of representatives from places that have missed out. Ultimately, this is why centralised governments tend to revert to formula-based allocations, despite the perpetual temptation to tweak them for opportunistic political advantage.
The levelling-up agenda
A lot rests on the success of the levelling-up agenda. The government is currently doing well in the polls, thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout and the continuing harvest reaped from turning Brexit into a wider culture war. But both these sources of support will diminish with time. Many voters, invited to take a hard-nosed view of what levelling-up means for them, will need convincing. This is not to say that the pork barrel strategy will sink the government, but its new politics of place will struggle to deliver on its promises.
This is an edited version of Deborah Mabbett’s commentary for issue 92(2) of The Political Quarterly, which includes articles on the levelling-up agenda and centre-local relations by Will Jennings, Lawrence McKay and Gerry Stoker, Jack Newman and Sam Warner, David Richards, Diane Coyle and Martin J. Smith.