UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Income inequality blights social progress and well being

The excellent Institute of Employment Rights hosted an impressive talk last night at UNISON’s new centre in London. John Hendy QC welcomed Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of the book The Spirit Level to address a packed meeting room: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level

Wilkinson is self deprecating and humble as he starts his talk but quickly warms to his topic in a style that befits a Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology. He is clear the ‘left’ lost its way somewhere in the past by not really believing in the idea of a society better for everyone was actually possible.

He is passionate about the fact that we can only be confident of building such a society in the future if we do it with empirical evidence. We simply cannot go on with some people having more of everything, even though it makes little difference, and others living in incredible levels of deprivation. As his research shows there becomes a point with economic growth where having more of everything makes little difference, and is certainly not sustainable environmentally.

All the evidence shows that there was a huge growth in inequality across the world during the 80’s which continues to this day. “A radical change within the lifetime of everyone in this room” he said "which clearly demonstrates that health and social problems are also worse in more unequal countries. It is not simply about absolute poverty but relative poverty as well and we will only improve our social environment by reducing income inequality” he said with absolute conviction.

Although we have known for hundreds of years that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive, we have focussed on the effects on individuals or single countries. “We were blind to the differences between countries” he said as he explained the basis for the books research and data collection using world health organisation statistics. “We have actually found nothing new, this is all data that is available “he explained

Recognising that people like Blair have traditionally thought purely in material terms about poverty , it was therefore assumed that by eradicating the social slums of the 18th century modern growth was going to be much better for all of us. “Thinking that inequality doesn’t matter, or wouldn’t have such an effect on society, has become the norm”.

“For Cameron to talk about the Big Society without dramatically reducing inequality is just flannel, missing much of what really impacts on life” he said to applause. “We only have to look at the present cabinet to know how far we are from real equal opportunities”

“If you want to live the real American Dream then go to Denmark – to talk about equality of outcome with such inopportunity is just pie in the sky”

This is a vitally important message and the book is a valuable resource as we look to articulate and develop policies and arguments. His last slide brought it dramatically home about the scale of the problem and our past failure. The gap between rich and poor in this country became huge under Thatcher and has never gone back down. It was just as bad under Blair and Brown. We will never achieve anything to improve the quality of life for our members and the working class until we start reducing that gap.

We need a political party and government that is truly committed to that project..