The Mysterious Fall and Rise of Inequality – Part I

James Thompson in his first of a three-part series on the curious rise of inequality in our politics


Inequality is currently an issue right near the top of the political agenda. By that I don’t mean that it is the number one issue that UK parties have put at the centre piece of their manifestos, but there is a palpable and general awareness that inequality is at the root of the vast swathe of our current social and economic woes. And what’s more, this time around those on the left for whom inequality has always been a big problem, have some strange bedfellows. Barack Obama said that inequality is “the defining challenge of our time”, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF no less has said that “in far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people. This is not a recipe for stability and sustainability” Whilst it has largely evaded the pre-election, party political discourse of late, even David Cameron acknowledged the damaging effects that inequality has on society in the run up to the last election, directly mentioning the authors of The Spirit Level.
But it was not always this way. In 2001, just 14 years ago, political philosopher Ronald Dworkin said that “equality is the endangered species of political ideals”. And he was right – no one was talking about it. Dworkin goes went onto say “Even left-of-center (sic) politicians reject equality as an ideal: government must combat poverty, they say, but need not strive that its citizens be equal in any dimension.”. These things are hard to quantify, but those of us old enough to remember might recall the deafening silence there was on the issue. When people did talk about equality, it tended to be about equality of opportunity, and concerns were usually around the discrimination of different groups on the grounds of race, gender or religion and the removal of such barriers to achieve social mobility. Otherwise, there was still (laudably enough) concern for reducing poverty, framed as ‘social exclusion’. The gap between the bottom and the middle was viewed as important and potentially problematic, but not the gap between the top and the middle or the top and the bottom.
New Labour and the Blair government perhaps exemplify the attitude to inequality at the time and it’s almost total lack of political salience. It is rumoured that Tony Blair only publicly used the word ‘inequality’ five times in his whole time as leader of the Labour Party. There is also the infamous interview with Paxman where he refused to answer if he thought the widening gap between rich and poor was acceptable 6 times in a row, eventually stating that “It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.” Then there’s Mandelson’s comment that “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes” (which, incidentally, they do not).
ineqThis period, where economic inequality was off the agenda, is pretty remarkable. Not only because of the importance put on inequality before and since, but also because we now know that throughout all periods, inequality has a terribly negative impact on most people’s lives. Work by epidemiologists like Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson as well as human geographers like Danny Dorling demonstrates that high levels of inequality correspond to a whole raft of social and health problems e.g. rates of imprisonment, problematic drug and alcohol use, infant mortality, poor literacy and numeracy, teenage pregnancy . There also appears to be a statistically significant link between low voter turnout and inequality.
This raises some interesting questions:
  • Why did economic inequality vanish from political discourse for the best part of two decades?
  • Why is it back with such a vengeance? (In other words, how do we account for is disappearance and its re-emergence?)
  • What does the future hold for inequality as an issue?
Over the next few weeks and months, we will look into different answers and explanations, covering historical, philosophical, political, social and psychological perspectives in a series of blogs. We will look at what some of the academic literature has to say on the matter, but aim to do so in an accessible way. There is likely to be more than one answer to each of these questions and we hope that looking at them will be, not only interesting, but also instructive, indicating a way forward for those who would like to see economic inequality both on the agenda and markedly reduced.


James Thompson will return soon with his part deux.


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