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The Stakes: Inequality

Every week until the General Election, we'll be asking academics and experts to outline what's at stake, from healthcare to housing, from education to the economy. In the first piece in this series, Danny Dorling explains what's at stake in terms of inequality.

Whether measured by the Gini coefficient for OECD countries, or by the take of the top 10%, income inequality rates in the UK today are the worst in all of Europe. The effects percolate into many aspects of life in Britain. As the defining issue of our time, we need concrete policy proposals and the political will to reverse current trends.

Where are we at?

Twenty years ago, when the Labour party came to power in 1997, 27% of all children and 26% of all pensioners in the UK lived in poverty. By the time they left power in 2010, those proportions had fallen to 18% and 17% respectively. Those falls represented a reduction in economic inequalities. The reductions could have been greater had the take of the top 1% not been allowed to continue to rise under Labour. However, under the Conservatives child poverty rates rose to 22% by 2017, and according to predictions made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies are set to reach 26% by 2021.

The Conservatives halted the falls in pensioner poverty abruptly in 2011. By 2017, a sixth (17%) of all UK pensioners were still living in poverty. A key Conservative legacy is that of all the countries of Europe, the UK was the only country to see no improvement in life expectancy between 2011 and 2015 (the latest year for which data has been released).

Data from the Family Resources Survey in the last few weeks has shown that for the first time ever, as you became older in Britain you now become less likely to escape private renting. If current trends continue, then most people aged under 50 should assume they will spend the rest of their lives renting from a private landlord. The wealth of private landlords rose by £177bn between 2010 and 2015 as landlords bought up more and more properties and as the price of all properties rose because of their frantic purchases, all fuelled by high and rising rents.

The failure of the Conservative government to see any improvement in public health since coming to office is the worse health record of any UK government since at least 1945. It contrasts with life expectancy improving by a year since 2011 in Norway, to now stand at 82.4 years. Even life expectancy in Greece, at 81.1 years, is today higher than in the UK, at 81.0 years. Greece fared worse than the UK in 2011. Now it does better. No falls in UK pensioner poverty rates since 2011, coupled with massive cuts to social care budgets and the NHS crisis, mean that people in the UK now live shorter lives than people in Greece.

What’s at stake in the General Election?

The 2017 General Election may well determine whether the many changes in life chances that began in 2011 become cemented for a generation. If the Conservatives win a large majority of seats, which is possible without a large majority of votes, they can claim popular support for what they have done.

The average child in the UK should expect to be taught at schools that are increasingly poorly resourced compared to what school children elsewhere in Europe will experience, and more than one in four children will be poor.

For working adults wages will remain low, rents will climber even higher, even more people will be forced to take any job, or any number of jobs, they can find. Most will spend most of their adult lives working to allow their landlord to become richer. Adults not in work will suffer even more.

If the Conservative majority is greatly increased, we should not expect to live as long as other people in Europe. Already in early 2017, UK pension providers have removed many billions of pounds from future pension planning because they now do not think we will live as long as they had thought in 2011.

What can be done?

In order to address inequality in the UK, we need a bold package of interventions across a number of sectors. This package should include good job creation, the universal provision of high quality, affordable childcare, a fairer, more progressive tax system and a programme for affordable housing.

The problem, however, is not so much a lack of available policies, but a refusal to identify inequality as a problem in the first place. In fact, the Conservative party has celebrated high and rising economic inequality. Margaret Thatcher believed high economic inequalities were good and reflected differences in what people deserved. Every other country in Europe has managed to hold inequalities lower than in the UK - often much lower - and in most countries economic inequalities have been reducing or stable in recent years. Our main problem is being governed by people who have no interest in policies that address inequality, and in telling the public that they believe most people do not deserve to be well off.