Extreme inequality: extreme politics
The last couple of weeks have been pretty grim for those of us interested in reducing inequality in the world. Donald Trump’s victory is worrying and depressing, but the US election result also seems to confirm what rampant inequality can do, especially where a credible progressive response is absent. In the US the gap between rich and poor is the highest it has been for at least 100 years. Working class and middle class Americans have seen their incomes stagnate or decline. A significant proportion of the US population clearly feels ‘left behind’. So the sight of a billionaire property developer presenting himself as the voice of ordinary Americans is astonishing, but his rhetoric – bringing back the jobs and making America great again was enough to edge him into the White House.
At the Centre for London annual conference last week US academic Benjamin Barber (President and Founder Global Parliament of Mayors project) said that Trump ‘was on the wrong side of history’, noting that urban areas in the US overwhelmingly voted for the Democrats, that the future is made in cities and that cities will work together to tackle the most pressing global problems: inequality and climate change, despite the new occupant of the White House. Although Mr Barber’s optimism was welcome many London delegates thought Trump, even if he proves to be a one term, incompetent reactionary, could make a lot of things a lot worse for a lot of people. And of course it's not only America where reactionary, populist political movements have won recently.
So for London we have no choice but to re-double our efforts to get our city to change course: towards a fairer future, to deal with the problems caused by extreme and excessive wealth and to build a fairer, more equitable society. If London can show the way then maybe we can offer some hope to our American cousins. Inequality is the defining social problem of our age and cities are where we will win or lose the struggle for greater equality.
My Fair London will continue to work for a fairer London however we can. Sign up as a supporter and help us set a new direction for London.
During the Labour party conference Sadiq Khan wrote in the Evening Standard that holding the office of Mayor of London meant he could “ensure that London’s growth is shared more equally, with a real living wage, plans to improve gender pay inequality and a laser-like focus on tackling inequality.” It is refreshing to have a Mayor who regularly talks about inequality with such emphasis.
Last week Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, told us that ‘change is going to come’. Of course it’s almost beyond irony that a Conservative leader should choose to steal one of the rallying cries of the American Civil Rights movement, during a week where her colleagues repeatedly sought to blame or demonise migrants. However in her closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference the Prime Minister spoke repeatedly of fairness, of the gaps between old and young, between London and the rest of the UK, and most of all between the 1% and the rest. Despite her party's 40 year pursuit of the policies that led Britain to where we are today, Theresa May drew a line under that era and said that a strong state and a fair society were fundamental objectives for her administration, that business took too much, that she was concerned for the working class, and that a change was going to come.
At our September meeting we discussed where the politics of economic inequality has got to (and thanks to My Fair London activist Greg for stimulating such a rich discussion). Back in 2009, when ‘The Spirit Level” was published and we first came together, while the problem of gross and growing economic inequality was discussed, it was largely the preserve of left-leaning groups, academics and think tanks. Now we have a Conservative Prime Minister talking about the problems facing working class people and identifying inequality as a fundamental problem. And past global guardians of neo-liberal economic policy – the World Bank, the OECD, the IMF, not to mention the Bank of England – all publishing reports on the problem of economic inequality, the risks it poses to the economy and to the safe functioning of democracy itself. There is even widespread recognition that economic inequality is bad for productivity.
So the inequality debate has moved on and those of us who believe that a more equal society will be better for everyone seem to have won the argument: that inequality is bad, economically, socially, politically. Now the area for debate and discussion is what to do about it.
So what is My Fair London doing?
We have agreed that a fundamental priority for My Fair London continues to be to influence the Mayor of London. We need to do all that we can to encourage him to turn his words into actions. At the same time we have to recognise that although he is the Mayor his direct powers to achieve a really significant narrowing of inequality across the city are limited. In many ways his voice and advocacy for the cause of economic equality will be as important as any of the specific policy changes he can implement during his time at the Greater London Authority.
We have agreed to focus on a number of priorities over the next few months.
- My Fair London colleagues are busy working on a new pamphlet that will summarise the economic debates, and set out the economic arguments for greater equality. We hope this will be the first in a series of short, themed pamphlets describing how inequality underpins so many of the problems facing London: the housing crisis, youth unemployment and intergenerational inequity, poverty and low pay, crime and social cohesion, environmental harm and climate change.
If you’d like to get involved in creating these mini-manifestos please get in touch.
- We have had a warm initial response to our approach to Sadiq Khan’s office, and we expect an early meeting with his new Deputy Mayor for Social Cohesion, Matthew Ryder.
We’ll let you know when we have a meeting date with the Deputy Mayor, and we hope he will agree to come and speak to one of our meetings. Watch this space.
- We will be preparing a summary of the key policies that we believe the Mayor and others should adopt to start to move London onto a path to greater equality - drawing on our own manifesto for the recent Mayoral elections, and the work of the My Fair London promoted London Fairness Commission. http://londonfairnesscommission.co.uk
Again, please get in touch if you would like to help with this task.
- And we will be seeking to make common cause with other groups across London who recognise the links between economic inequality and other social, economic, political and environmental problems.
- On this last theme, My Fair London is pleased to host a book launch and evening discussion on Wednesday 19th October. Author Bob Hughes will present the core arguments in his new book, 'The Bleeding Edge: why technology turns toxic in an unequal world'. My Fair London activists have long felt there is an intrinsic link between the global environmental crisis and inequality. Bob's new book tries to explain just how these connections work. There are still a few places left. Reserve a place by booking a ticket here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/inequality-and-the-environment-at-the-bleeding-edge-tickets-28287588940
- Finally, My Fair London has been asked to give evidence at a public session of the London Finance Commission, on Friday 21st October. The Mayor has reconvened the Finance Commission specifically to help him better understand the potential consequences of Brexit for city finances, but he has also written into its terms of reference a fundamental concern for inequality. If you have any particular views on city taxation and revenue raising that you think are important for inequality, please get in touch with My Fair London chair, Alex Bax. And do come along to the meeting to show your concern. There’s more information at https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/business-and-economy/promoting-london/london-finance-commission
Come along, get involved, help us make London a fairer city for us all.
My Fair London activist Tom McDonough reports from 'Towards a localised future', a Saturday conference held at Friends Meeting House on 17th September, organised by Local Futures and Green House.
"One of the burdens of being a critic of neoliberalism and its concomitant inequality is the paucity of well-established alternative models for how our economies and societies should be organised. Over and again I hear people, including left-leaning people, lament the absence of viable substitutes for a consumption-driven, capitalist system. “It’s a rotten system but the only one we have” or “Well we tried communism and that didn’t work so what else is there?” are well worn lines of argument.
Post-Growth Localisation (PGL), the subject of a discussion held on 17th September at Friend’s House in Euston, offers one vision for how societies and economies could be run differently. Simplifying greatly, PGL posits that we need to end our obsession with economic growth and shift power from corporations to local communities. Its exponents do not believe that merely tinkering with our neoliberal framework by, for example, redistributing income and curbing individual energy consumption will ever resolve our social or economic woes.
Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, told attendees that ‘Localisation’ entailed encouraging diversified production for domestic needs instead of specialised production for export. This shift would not eliminate international trade nor require a return to insular village life, but it would mean moving power from transnational corporations to nation states and democratically robust local communities.
The scale and pace of economic activity would diminish as workers focused their energies on producing goods and services that people really needed rather than on churning out adverts and status-symbol goods that fuel a vicious cycle of insecurity, consumption and separation. Thus reorganised, people would have more face-to-face relationships, a closer connection with nature and an increased sense of personal and cultural identity. At the same time the reduced distances between producers and consumers would allow for a reduction in resource use and pollution while a bigger need for human labour would boost employment and lessen our reliance on energy-hungry technology. The model may sound utopian but it is in fact being implemented by communities and organisations all over the world, with the local food movement being at its heart. Besides food, localisation initiatives are focussing on small business networks, local banking and the ecovillage movement. In North America, for example, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, is bringing together small businesses to resist the pressures exerted by giant corporate giants.
‘Post growthism’ is arguably better known than ‘Localisation’ and would certainly be familiar to readers of Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level’, which argues that wealthy developed nations no longer gain benefits from economic growth and need to concentrate on reducing inequality if their citizens are to enjoy improved health and wellbeing. This analysis is entirely harmonious with Post Growthism. At the 17 September event Rupert Read, a member of the Green House think tank and a prominent Green Party politician, argued that the economics of happiness cannot be achieved as long as nations remained enslaved to the un-argued, un-analysed growth argument. According to Read, our obsessive quest for economic growth is destroying our eco-system, shredding communities through competitive consumerism and feeding inequality by enriching only the wealthiest. Growthism allows Governments to generate more acceptance for inequality by creating the illusion that all people, from the richest to the poorest, can continue to enjoy improvements in living standards, provided that overall the economic cake keeps growing.
I liked the PGL concept, not least for its focus on soft outcomes like re-connecting with nature, being happy, forging stronger relationships with community members, being more active and reversing our tendency to lead ever more sedentary, desk-based, screen-lives. But is it the alternative model to neoliberal capitalism that we so badly need? While its radical proposals would certainly be regarded with scepticism by many, they could also be appealing to the increasing numbers of disenfranchised people, even including Brexiters and Trumpists. PGL is by no means xenophobic or nationalist, but it could offer positive solutions to those of us who are enraged by inequality, environmental destruction, corporate dominance and a sense of powerlessness. However the PGL movement, like other alternatives to the neoliberal economic model, will never achieve success as long as it is known only to isolated groups of academics and activists. The real challenge is to increase awareness among the public, both of the fatal flaws in the current economic system and of the alternatives that exist, no easy task given that the mainstream media is controlled by corporations and the myth of meritocracy holds sway in the minds of many. If there is to be any hope of change we need information campaigns, alternative media organisations and education programmes that stop perpetuating the idea that our economic and social status quo is the only option."
There is more information about Local Futures here.
Brexit and the collapse of trust: another casualty of an unequal Britain
For many people the UK referendum vote in favour of leaving the European Union has been shocking, depressing and even frightening. 17 million Britons felt so angry and disenchanted with the status quo that they were willing to vote against the European Union, a project itself rooted in the European continent’s collective desire after the Second World War to find ways to work together that didn’t involve killing each other.
Of course there are 17 million different sets of reasons that explain why 17 million people put a particular cross in a box to answer a simple question (about a most complicated issue). There has been so much already written about the Brexit result, about the population’s attitudes, about deceitful politicians with false promises. However it seems to me there are multiple and deep connections between what has happened, what to do about it, and economic inequality. One strand of this is a profound breakdown in public trust: in institutions, in society, even in evidence of what the world is actually like.
Trust, especially public trust is complex and fragile. At the personal level, trust in relationships takes a long time to win and can be easily lost. In mental health services it is well known that gaining trust from patients is vital for long-term recovery. Working with homeless people, I know that when someone’s life has been characterized by repeated extreme betrayals of trust, for example through sustained abuse in childhood, the long-term psychological consequences can be devastating, affecting peoples’ ability to form successful relationships throughout their lives. It’s so hard to trust anyone when your experience is of repeated betrayal. Abuse, betrayal and visible unfairness undermine trust.
But the relationship works the other way too. Where trust is already low, suspicion and fearfulness between people will be high. People respond to difficult circumstances by trying to protect themselves. The collapse in trust in our society reflects long-term collective feelings of betrayal, of being misled, deceived and disrespected. Societies characterised by low levels of trust are frightening and depressing places in which to live. Human society depends on trust, trust in the value of money, in the doctor who looks after us, in school teachers who look after our children, simply in other drivers obeying the traffic lights.
Societies that are relatively more equal have higher levels of trust between people. More unequal societies have lower levels. An interesting illustration of this effect is the amount of wealth different developed countries spend on guards, security and surveillance. The more unequal your country, the more is spent on ‘protecting’ one person from another, often keeping us apart from each other (gated communities are just one example of this), and so further compounding a fall in trust between people . In very unequal societies it feels like someone may always be coming to get you or your stuff: you can’t trust the people around you. Incidentally it seems to me that the children of the rich may be particularly harmed by these effects – how can you form real relationships when your peers might only be interested in your stuff and what they can get from you?
So what about Brexit? A couple of weeks before polling day I was struck by the results of a YouGov poll that asked who potential ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ said they would trust when thinking about the European Union vote. The question offered a list of possible sources of advice or information. Among voters backing ‘remain’ there was a spread of views, with academics, people from international organisations, and economists all scoring positively, ahead of charities, businesses, and think-tanks. Only actors, sports-stars, politicians and journalists scored negatively. They were on average not trusted by ‘remainers’ for advice on this important question. Not that surprising I guess.
However among people intending to vote leave all the scores were negative. People grouped together by their intention to vote to leave the European Union generally trusted no-one in public life. Some ‘remainers’ have suggested that people who voted to leave were at least ill-informed, if not foolish. But maybe what the trust data tells us is that many, many people in Britain today are fearful, if not paranoid? They feel betrayed and misled and do not believe ‘experts’ or ‘commentators’. Over 40 years our society has been dominated by an ideology that said that everyone must be out for themselves, the market is king, if you or your community fail, it can only be your fault. The ‘leavers’ trusted nobody and ‘want their country back’. They hark back to a time when the gap between rich and poor was far narrower and levels of trust much higher. There’s a certain irony that Cameron and Osborne, harsh supporters of austerity economics and long-term protectors of our grossly unequal society, have themselves been undone by the extreme inequality, and resulting low levels of trust, over which they have most recently presided.
In ‘The Spirit Level’ Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket observed just how strongly levels of trust correlate with levels of inequality in a society. The more unequal we are, the less trust we trust each other, the more equal the more chance we will benefit from the kindness of strangers. Among all the other Brexit analysis, the result seems to firmly illustrate this effect.
Politicians on the right, bankers, international financial institutions are all now talking about inequality. However inequality has become a problem not because of the behaviour of ordinary people, but because of the behaviour of the rich. Our politicians have allowed (and many have actually made it an aim of public policy) people at the top to take too much. In Brexit, as in so many other parts of life, the harm done will most likely be felt most severely by the people with least. In or out of the European Union, to rebuild trust within our society, we of course need a more honest, even a more honourable public life, but much more fundamentally, and to create the conditions that will foster such changes in behaviour, we must narrow the gap between rich and poor.
[Professor Richard Wilkinson presented some of the data on security and trust when he gave the Aidan Halligan memorial address at ‘Homeless and Inclusion Health 2016’, the fourth international symposium of the Faculty for Homeless and Inclusion Health. Watch his presentation here http://www.homelessnessandhealth.co.uk/events/event-01/plenary-session-1-health-gap-causes-keynote/]
Sadiq Khan – the real challenge of being a ‘Mayor for all Londoners’
Congratulations to Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Mayor of London. During the campaign Sadiq spoke repeatedly about how he was brought up on a council estate in South London. We thought we would explore what is different about todays London compared to the London of Sadiq’s youth, and the chances for a family like Sadiq's living in the city today.
His core pledge is to be a Mayor for ‘all Londoners’. In the foreword to his manifesto he says, ‘For a child growing up on a council estate today, London is not the city of opportunity that it was for my brothers, my sisters and me.’ He is absolutely right, and the biggest underlying change that has made today’s London a much, much harder place for young people to get on, is the incredible increase in inequality that we have seen since 1979. To create a London that works for ‘all Londoners’, we must begin to reverse that 40 year drift to the extreme levels of inequality we all live with today, and the many small, medium and large insults that such an unfair society inflicts on every one us.
What we achieve in life is partly a function of our personal ambitions and interests, our capabilities and enthusiasms. But all our personal endeavour takes place in a context. The harsher the context in which we live the harder it is for personal qualities to overcome circumstance. A very unequal society, where money has become the defining characteristic of worth, is a very harsh environment for us all. Gross inequality makes it harder for every Londoner to live a full, free and fulfilled life. It makes life harder for the middle classes and for the poor, it most harms the chances of people at the very bottom, and even the rich are not immune from it’s impacts, as they retreat behind gates and security guards. If Sadiq is to deliver on his promise to young Londoners growing up today, he must tackle inequality.
A wealth of international evidence shows that more equal societies have more social mobility. Each step up, or down the ladder is smaller, and because status anxieties are less, moves up or down are less psychologically difficult. We only have to look at the make-up of the current British cabinet to see how easily privilege begets privilege. The London housing market is a great illustration of how the ladder of advantage is being pulled up behind those lucky enough to have bought their home in the past. A young Londoner without the ‘bank of mum and dad’ faces a far harsher future than the young Sadiq Khan. Inherited wealth is back, and the privilege it brings is back too.
When Sadiq Khan was growing up in the seventies and early eighties London was a far more equal city. His formative years came at the end of a 60 year period during which Britain had become ever more equal. Since 1979 the gap between rich and poor has returned to levels not seen since before the First World War. 1970s London was not a perfect society - racism was endemic and gay rights non existent. However lower levels of economic inequality meant young people were more likely to feel they could get on. As inequality grew through the 1980s these ‘felt’ possibilities diminished, just as the practical supports that a fair society should offer to people lower down the social scale have been inexorably withdrawn.
Today, a family like Sadiq’s, with a bus driver as the main earner, would be incredibly fortunate to get a council flat. They would more likely live in private rented accommodation on an insecure lease, and little Sadiq’s education would have been interrupted by his family having to move house several times, and probably change school. His bus driver father’s pay has stagnated over 40 years. The increased wealth and productivity of the economy has been taken by the top 10 and top 1% of earners. Today Sadiq’s family would be in receipt of tax credits to help them make ends meet and would probably claim housing benefit to bridge the gap between their household income and the rent. As the children grew up and moved away the bedroom tax might force Sadiq’s parents to move again. Instead of the rent the Khan family pay going to a local authority, to invest in more housing or other services, in 2016 that tax payers’ money goes to a private landlord through housing benefit. Frequent moves will have stressed Khan family relationships, and may also have made it difficult for his parents to send young Sadiq to the school of their choice, especially if richer neighbours have used their housing equity to move closer to a school that claims better results.
At school, status anxiety and a more competitive environment will have increased Sadiq’s chances of developing a mental health problem in his adolescent years, and the growing ‘social distances’ between social groups have made it less likely that young Sadiq has a group of friends from a broad social spectrum. Youth clubs, libraries, other public services accessible to all, but most useful to those with the least, have gradually been cut. For a young man from an ethic minority living on a council estate in south London to stay out of the way of gangs (where poor young people attack each other over the most petty sleights or perceived threats to social status) is a real challenge. One bright spot is that sustained investment in London’s state education system, with a focus on leadership and the quality of teaching, that started in the late 1990s, means that London’s schools do buck the trend nationally in raising the attainment of lower income children. However if young Sadiq does well at school and wants to go on to university to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer he and his family will be faced by the prospect of a mountain of student debt.
Of course, for the real Sadiq his late teenage years and early adulthood played out during the 1980s, the decade that saw what was probably the most rapid increase in inequality that Britain has ever seen. The most corrosive, pernicious effects of inequality take time to have an impact so perhaps the young Sadiq Khan, his family and community in South London, continued to benefit from the high point of equality that was Britain before 1979.
Today’s young Londoners, especially those living on council estates, face a world far less generous, and far more unequal than those of Sadiq Khan’s generation. The deep inequalities in our society set the scene for the lives of today’s young Londoners. Fairer societies have lower levels of crime, greater social mobility, lower levels of obesity and mental illness, higher levels of trust and higher and more fairly distributed life expectancy. My Fair London trusts the new Labour Mayor will recognize the harm inequality does to the city and put economic fairness at the heart of his programme. With his own personal history being of such importance, and his pledge to the people of London, all the people of London, he doesn’t really have any other choice.
'What happens when the rich get richer?'
We are delighted to announce a special screening of new documentary film 'The Divide'. The award winning documentary, inspired by the Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket, is a powerful, personal presentation of the impact of rampant inequality on peoples lives in Britain and America. Following the screening we will hold a discussion session with the film's producer, Christopher Hird, Executive Producer. With a new Mayor of London can we use the momentum generated by the film to stimulate action across London on inequality?
The screening is at our usual meeting venue in the UCLH Education Centre, 250 Euston Road. Tickets are free but space is limited so please follow this link to book your place
There's loads more information about the film, including reviews and the trailer on 'The Divide' web site.
The film makers would welcome approaches from community or campaigning groups across London interested in showing the film to their members. Contact My Fair London if you would like more information about how to arrange your own screening.
Excellent piece on Global Dashboard calling 'for a little more action' on inequality across the world. Ben Philips from Action Aid International comments how inequality is now commonly described as one of the most pressing problems facing the world even by global market institutions, many politicians and members of the 1%. But vanishingly little is being done about it: because action is too hard, too complicated, or not tenable, but mainly because it's not really in the interests of our leaders. He sets out five practical measures that we should call for right across the world, and calls for civil society to press these demands on our leaders. His five proposals are:
- Institute a wealth tax.
- Recognise, redistribute and reduce women’s unpaid care burden.
- Increase corporate democracy — implement structural shifts towards employee control of companies.
- Institute a maximum wage that is proportional to the wage paid to the most junior workers in a company.
- Limit private finance for political parties and political campaigns.
My Fair London would sign up to all these, and they are all eminently possible.
Our 'five steps for a fairer city' manifesto for the next Mayor of London calls for the new Mayor to institute wage ratios, and to look at wealth and property taxes as part of a programme to tackle London's housing crisis. Action on party finance, gender pay equality and unpaid work, and corporate governance and democracy would all benefit Londoners too. Let's hope that tomorrow we elect a new Mayor who will take action to make London a fairer city.
The link to the global dashboard piece is below, and it ends with a great video of Elvis Presley's song.
The BBC reports new research that finds the life expectancy gap between rich and poor in the UK is now widening, especially for men, for the first time since the 1870s. Could this be the long-term impact of hopelessly misguided neoliberal economic policies playing out in relatively shorter lives for the poor and longer lives for the rich? It would be a shocking turn in British history, the end of a 130 year positive social trend, and all the more so as we have known the causes of health inequalities for at least half a century: economic and social inequalities. The paper suggests that differences in 'lifestyle choices' between groups could be partly to blame, but Michael Marmot's work on health inequalities shows we must focus on the 'causes of the causes'.
The effects of social and economic inequities take time to accumulate in us and emerge slowly as generations mature. This means that some of the harms of inequality being visited on current generations can never wholly be undone, and that the social gains that will accrue from a more equal society will inevitably take time to become visible.
As a start let's hope that this week we manage to elect a new Mayor who understands that creating a fairer society is vital to our future health and prosperity, and that changing the direction of economic and social policy will take sustained long-term commitment.
Sadiq Khan for Labour has committed to creating an economic equity team right in the Mayor's office, if he is elected. The Green Party's manifesto for it's candidate Sian Berry, puts economic equality at the centre of their economic plans for London. Harder to see recognition of the issue's importance for London in Caroline Pidgeon's Lib Dem manifesto for London, although she spoke very well on the subject at the launch of the London Fairness Commission. Zac Goldsmith's manifesto doesn't mention economic inequality, and he didn't show up at the Fairness Commission's launch event.
Millionaires call for increased taxes
In case you missed it, fascinating reports that millionaires in New York City are asking for taxes on them to be raised. They say they can afford to pay more, and that public investment in schools, infrastructure, and anti-poverty measures are vital to shared economic success. The US tax system is complex and very different to the UK but nevertheless fascinating to see the richest in a society actually asking to pay more. Their letter does not make reference to the intrinsic benefits of narrower gaps between rich and poor, but I guess us non super-rich can't expect everything.
What chance London wealthiest asking to pay more tax? The London Fairness Commission reported that the 80 billionaires resident in London have shared wealth of over £250,000,000,000. A one percent tax on these 80 individuals would raise more than the Mayor of London's total annual budget for housing.
A small but perfectly formed My Fair London contingent joined the huge demonstration in central London on Saturday. Our banner stood up well, resisting both the wind and the rain, and the sun even came out as we arrived in Trafalgar Square. Impossible to estimate numbers when you are in a march but it felt like a very large crowd. Our banner's slogan "extreme inequality hurts us all" seemed to get a lot of attention. Thanks to everyone who came along.
We gave out hundreds of copies of our manifesto for the next Mayor of London - 5 Steps for a Fairer London, and talked to lots and lots of people about inequality. Particularly pleased to give a copy to Jules Pipe, the Labour Mayor of Hackney, and Chair of London Councils.