We’re on the mend, claims equality guru

My Fair London activist Tom McDonough reports on a recent lecture at the London School of Economics

Public opinion in Britain has turned against extreme inequality, marking the start of a period of change that will see us become a more equal and fairer country within a generation, Danny Dorling has said.

Speaking at the London School of Economics on May 18th, Dorling, the Oxford Professor of Human Geography argued that the negative effects of inequality in Britain were now so evident that the public and politicians alike were turning their backs on the ‘greed is good’ mantra of the 1980s and 90s.

“You can’t argue any more that if you just create the conditions for the rich to get richer, their wealth will trickle down and we’ll all be better off. We’ve been trying that for the last 30 years in this country and the results have been disastrous,” said Dorling.

Even the Tories, argues Dorling, have acknowledged the public’s appetite for greater fairness by aping the language of the centre and left in their 2017 manifesto and election campaign, using words such as ‘mainstream’ and ‘working people’ in between renditions of ‘strong and stable’.

“There’s been a real shift in moral attitudes. When people see someone now with a number plate that says ‘Rich1’ they pity him, they don’t think he’s done well like they used to. You don’t hear stories about bankers not far from here drinking £10,000 bottles of champagne anymore either,” he said.  

Subtle changes in economic data are also hinting that our wealthiest people are starting to feel a little coyer about their riches. The share of income of Britain’s richest one per cent dropped from 15.4% in 2007 to 12.7% by 2012, with the most likely explanation being that this elite group found new ways to hide their earnings. (Dorling, 2017, p35) This squirrelling away of funds may not represent any great change of heart among members of this group, but Dorling views it as evidence that our richest citizens are at least aware that their incomes are coming under new and vigorous scrutiny. Dorling points out that pay ratios are now published annually for civil servants by government department in the UK and that so far they have fallen as the pay of the person at the top of each UK ministry has been frozen while the median pay continues to rise very slightly. (Dorling, 2017, p256)

Meanwhile in the US the average pay gap between bosses and workers fell between 2014 and 2015, while during the same period the average pay of CEOs in the US’s top 500  companies fell from being 373 to 335 times higher than the average worker. (Dorling, 2017, p43)

There are signs of a shift elsewhere as well.  The richest one per cent in China and India have also recorded drops in their incomes, most probably for the same reasons as Britain’s top one per cent. On a global level too, there have been improvements. Branko Milanovic, the lead economist in the World Bank’s research department, showed that inequality fell between 1988 and 2008 as people in the second poorest and middle fifths of the global income distribution recorded increases in their income of between 20% and 75%. (Dorling, 2017, p31)

The improvements must of course be viewed in context. Many countries, including Britain and America, have been growing more and more unequal for the last 30 years or so. The best off fifth of the population in Britain earns 7.6 times more than the poorest fifth, while the equivalent figure for the US is 9.8 and for Israel it is 10.3. Less unequal countries like Sweden and Norway have a ratio of around 4:1. (Dorling, 2017, p23) Meanwhile the most affluent one per cent of people in the US take a 17.85% share of the country’s income while in Britain the figure is 12.7%. In more equal countries such as Sweden and Holland the richest one per cent receive 7.34% and 6.33%, respectively, of earnings in their countries. (Dorling, 2017, p34)

Why it matters

If Dorling is positive about the future he is scathing about the state we are in at present. His new book, The Equality Effect, describes the devastating impact of inequality on social and health outcomes and includes a slew of new data on the links between inequality and the environment. But it is Dorling’s forthright and sometimes quirky examples of the effects of inequality on people’s psyche and behaviour that are arguably more attention-grabbing.

Britain, the most unequal country in Europe, is held up by Dorling as a particularly good example of the damage done by inequality. Income differentials in the UK have been at such high levels for so long now that we have become an ‘abnormal’ nation, he says, in which people don’t regard the poorest as even being human.

“It’s hard to get through a day a very unequal country like ours if you see people at the bottom as human because you might begin to worry about how people are being treated,” he says.

This dehumanising effect of inequality reduces our sympathy levels and causes us to take tough stances towards minority groups such as immigrants, including refugees. Right wing parties, argues Dorling, generally gain more ground in more unequal countries, though France has bucked this trend to some degree. The logic appears to be that people who are treated with contempt, who have no hope of being socially mobile or enjoying job security or affordable housing, will feel a certain reluctance to share resources with others, especially outsiders.

Furthermore, people become used to being dominated and cease to expect positive changes, their energies focussing instead on feelings of resentment and rage. In such a climate, simple, dumbed down messages, like those delivered by the Brexit campaign and Trump, can find fertile breeding grounds.

In competitive, unequal countries like Britain and the US where the ‘winner’ versus ‘loser’ paradigm shapes our view of ourselves and others, people’s hunger for status makes them stressed and narcissistic, says Dorling.

“In a country like Britain we comfort-eat more because of stress and we’re easily duped into buying due to status anxiety,” he says.

The range of areas Dorling says are affected by inequality is long and sometimes surprising. We score poorly in tests on maths ability among young adults in Britain because our status-obsessed parents and teachers are more concerned with teaching children strategies for passing their SATS tests than with genuinely improving children’s ability in maths. Our tendency to hunker down in our own personal spaces and block out others also means British and American people are more likely to drive to work than to cycle or walk there, the social and environmental benefits of the latter modes of transport being far from uppermost in our minds. British are also, says Dorling, less likely to know or interact with our neighbours.

The examples Dorling gives may in some cases be quirky and interesting but the consequences of our inequality are dire. Data on life expectancy show that we are paying for it with our lives. Britain is the only country in Europe that has not recorded an increase in life expectancy since 2010 while the US has, incredibly, recorded a fall in life expectancy over the same period. Meanwhile Finland, Norway and Japan, among the most equal of nations, saw increases in life expectancy of one year between 2010 and 2015. (Dorling, 2017)

The future

Could Dorling’s optimistic outlook be right? Are we really becoming less tolerant of extremes in wealth and inequality? At first glance, the optimism seems hopelessly out-of-touch. The British people have offered little resistance over the last seven years to a Tory Government that has acted with zeal to widen the gap the between the haves and have nots. Since 2010 two Conservative Governments have launched attack after attack on our welfare state and social care system while simultaneously cutting tax rates for corporations and the rich and turning a blind eye to tax evasion by multinationals. In some instances the disregard for equality and fairness has been breathtaking. In 2012, fresh from culling the numbers of people who qualify for benefits, Osborne travelled to Brussels to argue that the EU should not pass a law placing a cap on bankers’ bonuses.

And these eye-wateringly unjust and damaging policies have met with little resistance. Bar the 2011 riots and a few marches, some of which have admittedly become a bit unruly, the British public has hardly reacted, on a street level, to the miseries being piled upon us. We have certainly not seen a repeat in recent years of the kind of robust fight-backs that were launched against mine closures in the 1980s and the poll tax in 1990.

Nor either have we used our votes to protest against our Government’s neo-liberal policies. We had an opportunity in 2015 to show our disapproval of inequality by electing a new Government but we chose instead to vote the Conservatives back in. In their post-election assessments, high ranking members of the Labour party lamented that their great mistake had been to shift ever so slightly to the left under Ed Miliband and that by doing so they had failed to promote aspiration. Harriet Harmen, in an interview with the Independent, said that Labour had shown too much concern for those on benefits and not enough for those who work hard and own nice cars. (Independent, 8th June 2015) With Labour pedalling the myth of meritocracy in this way, the future looked bleak indeed for anyone with concerns about inequality.

But then, completely against the run of play, pro-equality politician Jeremy Corbyn was voted in as Labour leader by rank and file members of the party in 2015. Since his victory Corbyn has been constantly derided by the media and ridiculed in Westminster, including by his own party. In 2016 he was forced to take part in another leadership contest, which he again won by a wide margin.  It’s clear that the right wing press doesn’t like Corbyn, but it’s become equally clear that large numbers of ordinary people do. Even if the recent pre-general election polls turn out to be only partially correct, they none-the-less show that Corbyn has significant backing among the electorate. Perhaps this support for Corbyn suggests that Dorling’s optimism is not be misplaced? Maybe, just maybe, the seeds of change have been planted and Britain is on course to become a fairer and more equal society within a generation.

Danny Dorling’s new book is called ‘The Equality Effect: improving life for everyone’. It was published in May 2017 by New Internationalist Books. https://newint.org/books/

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  • Andrew Roberts
    Really interesting post, thank you. I think the decline in inequality is contested though – I gathered from Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 yesterday that the figures are a bit misleading, heavily affected by developments in China, which is far from representative of changes globally.