This morning, Keir Starmer launched a report written by Gordon Brown and the Commission on the UK’s Future, A New Britain: renewing our democracy and rebuilding our economy. Starmer described in an article headlined The journey towards a fairer Britain starts now how this would meet the “twin Gorgon gaze” of two challenges: the hoarding of power in Westminster, and the lowering of ethical standards. But he also identified a deep underlying problem: the broken social contract. It’s no longer true that “if you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want.”
The report makes an explicit link with wealth inequality (see ‘exhibit 6’ on page 24), which is welcome, and mirrors our analysis in the Fairness Index, whose foreword argued that substantial levels of inequality are intrinsically unfair. And it’s interesting that this review chooses to weave together constitutional reform with a strategy to address the regional inequalities that prompted the Conservatives to publish a white paper on levelling up, two administrations and ten months ago.
Starmer talks about the need to reform the constitution to end “sticking plaster politics”, and he’s clearly onto something; a proactive, long-term, joined-up approach to today’s interlinked and intractable problems is urgently needed. The range of proposals set out in this report all sound as sensible and necessary as they are wide-ranging: from giving local areas more control over decision-making and the devolved governments extra powers, to replacing the House of Lords with an elected ‘assembly of the nations and regions’ and cracking down on corruption in politics.
Today’s report is right to highlight the extent of political inequality in this country, and the urgency of doing something about it as part of a broader set of measures to tackle economic and regional inequality. But an issue with any exercise of this nature is that it raises obvious questions about what has not been included in the problem analysis and, correspondingly, in the solutions presented.
Constitutional reform, with a particular focus on devolution and tackling regional inequalities, could be catalytic, and might unlock and enable change in other areas. But there are plenty of alternative diagnoses - and prescriptions for change (few of which are mutually exclusive). To give just a few examples:
Neal Lawson at Compass argues that we can’t achieve the radical change needed without replacing our first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportional representation.
Journalist and campaigner Nick Shaxson pins the problem on an economy that is structured around the needs of an overgrown finance sector, which distorts and impoverishes everything and everyone else.
In End State, James Plunkett argues that the job of the state is to harness the market, which he likens to a “powerful creature” that is constantly evolving, and that the state has not yet learned how to adapt to the latest (r)evolution brought about by the digital age.
And so on.
So how does the Labour Party, looking at the prospect of coming into government during a period of unprecedented upheaval, cope with a daunting list of problems that is too long to list here?
There’s no single answer, of course, but a report published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as part of its series of papers on inequality for the Deaton Review, highlights one other perspective that all political parties must engage with sooner or later. Time, as well as space, is important. Intergenerational inequalities, as well as regional inequalities, are snowballing, and can’t be ignored any longer.
The IFS report focuses on political inequality, and suggests that there are many ways of defining and measuring political inequality, from who votes to how politicians choose to prioritise the needs of different groups in society. The picture is complex and variable. This is in part because the link between socio-economic status and voting behaviour is less clear than it used to be (example: the red wall). Political participation has become more unequal, influenced by factors such as income, education and home ownership. But one overall finding comes out clearly: “policies over the last 30 years have been highly responsive to the needs of pensioners and older voters, but more variably responsive to the insecurities faced by working-age adults, renters, younger people and those in particularly deprived geographic areas”.
This means that, “while parties across the political spectrum have paid increasing attention to insecurity amongst the elderly, there has been less stable policy attention to insecurity amongst younger citizens or to geographic and wealth inequalities.” Meanwhile, as Jane Green and colleagues at Nuffield College Oxford pointed out earlier this year, economic insecurity is lower among the elderly than among young people, due to decades of rising asset prices (especially house prices), combined with secure and well-paid jobs and good pensions.
Of course, there are political reasons to focus attention on demographic groups that vote in higher numbers (partly due to the distortions caused by first-past-the-post). But maybe politicians overestimate the extent to which older generations focus on their own interests at the expense of younger generations? Focus group research tends to find that people are more generous and progressive when talking about individual cases than when presented with abstract arguments or groups, and most people have family or friends who are in different generations. Maybe there’s a perception gap that needs to be explored…
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