This essay, on perceptions of inequality in Britain, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 28 February 2021, under the headline “The left/right divide still exists. But it’s struggling to escape the lure of identity politics”.
First, the good news. Britons see inequality as a major problem and divide broadly along traditional political lines in their attitudes towards it. Then, the bad news. Britons are also inclined to see inequalities as driven by individual behaviour as much as by social policy or structural factors.
So suggests Unequal Britain, a new study of public attitudes to inequalities published last week by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London. It’s a fascinating deep dive into perceptions both of the problems and the solutions.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the study is how much people’s attitudes reflect old-style left-right politics. The fashionable mantra today is that the politics of left v right are no longer important, and that cultural divisions are more significant. The Brexit divide – Leave v Remain – has become shorthand for thinking about these kinds of divisions. Unequal Britain shows why such claims, while reflecting real developments, should nevertheless be treated with caution.
Most people, of whatever political affiliation, see geographical inequalities and inequalities of income and wealth, as serious problems that need tackling. But beyond this, attitudes to inequality are framed by broader political inclinations.
Three times as many Labour voters as Tory voters believe Britain was “very unequal” before the pandemic. Labour Leavers are closer to Labour Remainers than they are to Tory Leavers on most questions about inequality. Two-thirds of Labour Remainers and six in 10 Labour Leavers want more active government intervention in the economy in the future, as compared with 32% of Tory Leavers and 22% of Tory Remainers, who view government support for people and businesses during the pandemic as a one-off. Fewer people think that inequalities between racial and ethnic groups, or between men and women, are as serious as geographical disparities or differences of wealth. We should be careful how we read this. The study also shows that three-quarters of people think it would be a “very big” or “fairly big” problem if racial inequalities increased post-pandemic. Two-thirds think the same about gender inequalities. Most people, in other words, do not dismiss inequities created by race or gender, but don’t see them as significant as disparities created by wealth or location.
There is a certainly a large lump of hardcore racists; 13% believe that “most black people don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty”, and 4% that they have “less in-born ability to learn”. That is worrying. But beyond that, there is a widespread commitment to fairness irrespective of race and gender.
The issue of racial disparities is one that divides people on Remainer/Leaver lines more than on Labour/Tory lines. The likely reason is that questions of race and identity are so important (for different reasons) to the worldviews of both Leavers and Remainers that their answers to such questions become more polarised.
A significant challenge in trying to parse all this data is the inadequacy of our political language to make sense of the problems or define the solutions. An arresting aspect of the study is that “class” is mentioned just once in the report, and not at all in any question. It is not, says Bobby Duffy, lead researcher for the study, that researchers do not consider questions of class important – they do – but rather that they “took the view that, for public understanding in a simple survey, class is less clear and precise in what it means” than “components such as income, wealth, geography and education”.
It is true that for many people the concept of class, and of who belongs to what class, can seem nebulous. But viewing inequality through the prisms of geography or education or wealth distribution, while important, also tends to depoliticise the problem. Living in London or having a university degree has become a mark of the “metropolitan elite”. Similarly, someone who lives in a “red wall” constituency, or who has left school without a qualification gets placed in a particular cultural box. Proxies for class, in other words, such as location or education, help shift the debate away from the terrain of politics and on to that of culture and identity.
Perhaps the starkest expression of the way in which debate about inequality has been depoliticised lies in the attachment to the idea of a meritocratic society. There is, the report notes, “a general belief among the British public that our own efforts are key to getting ahead in life, while fewer think that our background is relevant”.
Remarkably, nearly half the respondents thought that those who became unemployed during the pandemic had lost their jobs primarily because of their performance at work. It’s a startling figure, but not that surprising. Throughout the pandemic, the public has consistently seen other people, rather than government policy, as being responsible for rising cases of Covid-19, and even for the numbers of deaths. This fits into a much longer history of viewing poverty and inequality as moral rather than political issues, as a failure of the individual rather than of social policy.
It was in the 1980s that inequality soared to the levels that we see today. The same economic and social changes that fuelled inequality also made it harder to see this inequality in economic and political terms. Policies that fragmented society, shattered communities, broke trade unions and eroded civil society have, Duffy observes, led people towards individual rather than systemic explanations for inequality. It’s not, he says, that people are embracing an “everyone for themselves” attitude, nor is it “an outright rejection of collective action”. Rather, people are pushed into a kind of “reluctant individualism” because they “struggle to see how to get to a better alternative”.
And that sums up well where we are now. The final section of the report suggests that “there is no widespread appetite for change”. I disagree. It is rather that people feel disaffected and want change, but live in a world in which the vehicles for change seem unfit for purpose. That’s one reason people have moved on to the terrain of culture and identity. It’s what stoked the politics of identity within working-class communities and among middle-class liberals, as both look in different ways to cultural answers for political problems. Unequal Britain shows why traditional left-right divisions remain important but also why it’s become more difficult to see social problems in those terms.