The Big Society needs greater equality

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  • Health & wellbeing

Professor Kate Pickett FRSA argues that coalition government and the public should be intensely worried about inequality and its wider impacts.

Leading up to the General Election in May, there was a remarkable degree of ideological agreement, at least in rhetoric, between the major political parties in the UK. They all had long-standing commitments to the alleviation of poverty, particularly for children; what was new in the run-up to the election was a cross-party consensus that ‘fairness’ and inequality were significant social problems in contemporary Britain.

This represented a major turnaround in political thinking for the two main parties. The Labour Party, although the traditional seat of egalitarian politics, had turned its back on inequality, with Peter Mandelson famously saying that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting very rich. For those of us involved in research on the devastating impact of inequality those were frustrating years. In 2006, I spoke at a conference in Edinburgh, along with a Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, who said how sympathetic he was to the findings I had been presenting. When asked what they may have meant for policy he hastily backed off, saying that, under New Labour, he couldn’t publicly discuss this: he could talk about poverty but not inequality.

Fast-forward to November, 2009 and in his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, we find David Cameron saying: “Ask anyone of any political colour the kind of country they want to see and they'll say a Britain that is richer, that is safer, that is greener but perhaps most important to us all, a country that is fairer and where opportunity is more equal.” Significantly, he went on to say: “We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side-by-side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.”

It is true that for generations, many people have felt that equality, fairness and social justice are key to well-being for both individuals and whole societies. But it is only recently with the emergence of a strong body of evidence showing the damage caused by inequality that our heads have come into line with our hearts. In our recent book, The Spirit Level, in addition to our own epidemiological research, we synthesize the results of many hundreds of research studies that come to the same conclusion. In addition, the findings of two government-commissioned reports, from the National Equality Panel and the Marmot Review of Health Inequalities were critical in putting social inequality back at the centre of the political agenda.

Just before leaving office, the Labour government passed the Equality Act 2010, which includes new public sector duties to consider the impact of policy on inequalities defined by gender, ethnic minority, age, disability and socio-economic status. At the same time, both the Prime Minister in waiting and the Deputy Prime Minister to-be, then acting as party leaders, responded positively to a request from a coalition of charities to institute a Fairness Test for deficit reduction measures within the Treasury.

Our post-election world looks much less cohesive. The Fawcett Society has instituted a legal challenge to the coalition government’s emergency budget, estimating that £5.8bn of its £8bn cuts will fall on women and women’s’ jobs. Groups campaigning for equality for black and minority ethnic groups are also planning challenges. Robert Chote, Director of the independent and highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that the government’s analysis of its budget on income distribution missed the “impact of the looming cuts to public services, which are likely to hit poorer households significantly harder than richer households.” Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics has recently estimated that, if even half the money needed to reduce the deficit is raised through spending cuts, then the poorest fifth of the population will lose 12 per cent of their income, while the richest fifth will lose less than 1per cent.

At the same time, our own work has come under attack from three think tanks, seemingly ideologically opposed to the wide pre-election consensus that inequalities have grown too large in the UK and are profoundly damaging to our society. We firmly stand behind our analyses of the strong body of evidence that now exists.

The evidence on the impacts of inequality may make depressing reading but – as Cameron implied – it only tells us what many people already intuitively knew. We should welcome its emergence as good news in that it gives us a far firmer footing on which to publicly debate the issue and direct policy and resources. But, having a continuing and robust political consensus for tackling inequality would be even better.

Best of all would be to live in a society – a Big Society – where the quality of social relationships and human well-being, rather than the relentless pursuit of wealth, are the focus of attention. This requires a much stronger political will, a much bolder political voice, and a larger social movement than have yet been mustered. Social capital – the ability and combined capabilities of people to act for their common good – is fostered by greater income equality. To achieve the Big Society it has described – one that empowers local people and communities – the coalition government must stake out and defend the radical and positive vision of a more equal society.


Professor Kate Pickett, PhD FRSA works in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York and is a founding member of the Equality Trust . She is co-author of The Spirit Level : Why Equality is Better for Everyone published by Penguin in 2010.

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  • Thanks for this excellent piece. For me it was a healthy reminder that, though to an extent we will make of it what we will, the ‘Big Society’ is purely a few piecemeal (and in the main part encouraging) policies against a stream of government policies that do not bear out a commitment to those very same goals trumpeted as motivation for ‘Big Society’. Can equality of opportunity and the building local social capital be aided by pulling back from an increase in capital gains tax to 40% in favour of a VAT increase? Or why should the pupil premium be funded out of existing children’s budgets whilst hurrying to replace a Trident system outside the remit of a defence review? In a representative democracy, an election should be the moment where policies have to be formulated by parties and the public can chose which policies it wants. In the case of one of the most important and complex issues, namely, how the deficit could be reduced during this parliament, the culture of the political class meant that we ended up in a debate of obfuscation, oft-repeated half-truths and as slide 29 of www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn99.pdf shows, little clarity about budget-deficit measures and how they can be made as fairly as possible. I think the far bigger impact on equality of opportunity will come from deficit-reduction rather than the impact of the talk and policies that are part of the 'Big Society'. We shouldn't get entirely distracted from piecemeal (and in some sense exciting) measures that distract from the importance of getting the decisions that affect the opportunities of huge numbers of people right.

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