The second plenary session of the Policy and Politics Annual Conference was delivered by Prof. Danny Dorling, who provided a shocking and somewhat scary analysis of the increasing levels of inequality in the UK. The big question for us all to consider is why there is no consistent challenge to this situation and why we appear to accept the disparities that exist. Why is it acceptable and why would anyone think inequalities are a good thing?
One answer to the question is that we don’t actually realise how unequal we are as a society. But a quick look through some of the statistics soon provides the evidence we need. Danny took us through graph after graph that more than adequately demonstrated just how big the problem is and that it is increasing. One example to illustrate the point, in 2010 the best off tenth of the population in the UK were nearly 14 times better off than the worst off tenth. By 2015 this had grown to more than 17 times better off, and if the trend continues on a similar course in less than 20 years the best off will have over 24 times as much disposable income as the worst off. The problem is that the change is gradual, we don’t notice it so much and we get used to it. We begin to accept that inequalities exist and that somehow they are a function of our society that will take time (and money) to address.
If we look back and think about how something existed previously, that we wouldn’t accept now, then that gives us some clues about our acceptance of issues. The example Danny used was corporal punishment in schools, the use of the cane on children, which for many was a perfectly acceptable situation. Until that is people began to question it and began to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t the best way to discipline children, and eventually change happened. But we would now look back and think how could we have ever done that? Perhaps the same is true now about issues of inequality in our society, we will look back in years to come and think how did we ever allow that? Look at the statistics on mental illness in young people now and think about how they could look to us in the future, and the question it raises is how did we not notice that? The simple answer is that with gradual change we don’t always notice until we look back at longer term trends. We simply get used to what we see and what is happening and don’t always ask the right questions.
What Danny’s presentation showed us very effectively is the shocking fact that the statistics around inequalities are getting worse every time they are updated. The key to seeking solutions, as suggested by Danny, is not necessarily to look back at when things were better or to look to existing solutions, but instead to think about modern, progressive approaches to the issues we are facing now.
In response to questions, Danny suggested that there was a role for academics, to use research to provide utopian examples illustrating how we can move things in the right direction. The challenge perhaps is to think about what gets people angry. In the last election the focus was very much on immigration and the economy as the most salient issues. Those very debates deflected attention away from any real discussion of social inequalities. So, the challenge is to think about how we can use different messages to put inequality issues on the agenda, to talk about them in terms that attract attention and to use the research evidence to highlight the shocking facts.