Howl, beat your head against the wall, tear your hair and despair of this country. How can it be that nearly half the population thinks the reason people lost their jobs in the pandemic was due to their own underperformance? Just 31% attribute it to bad luck. Look around every city and town to see the shuttered shops, closed offices, boarded-up pubs, bars and restaurants, the blindingly obvious signs of the mass loss of jobs. Yet again those on the left are forced to confront some dismal realities about British public attitudes.

King’s College London’s deep research into how people feel about inequality is enough to all but extinguish political hope. It’s nice to know that Labour supporters are kinder than their Tory counterparts, but even so, a shocking 39% of Labour voters think it’s people’s own fault they lost their jobs, as this week the unemployment rate hit 5%, with worse to come.

Why does it keep shocking us, since the British people have most commonly voted in Conservative governments, with Labour crushed again and again? The Brexit vote came as the heaviest hammer-blow in living memory, followed by Boris Johnson’s triumph. This research shows that enthusing the public with a strong enough will to significantly reduce inequality requires exceptionally clever efforts of persuasion.

“There is no widespread appetite for change,” concludes the final section of this devastating report. What a blow to all of us who hope this crisis can be a 1945 moment, that the state’s massive intervention for the survival of so many might have whetted the appetite for more. “We should not expect a widespread reappraisal of the case for greater government intervention in the economy, despite the economic hardship wrought by the pandemic,” is the sobering conclusion.

Its lead author, Professor Bobby Duffy, long-time Ipsos Mori researcher on social attitudes, reminded me that there has been historic change for the better in attitudes on race, gender and sexuality, and that younger people are considerably more progressive than those who are old. But when I talked to him, he warned that attitudes can change again: “It doesn’t mean there won’t be backsliding.”

He warned on race that a fixed 13% have toxic racist attitudes. A quarter of people think Covid causing a rise in ethnic inequality wouldn’t be problem, though 67% say it would. Gender inequality ranks low as a concern, possibly because an older generation remember how much that has already improved.

Here’s the great political gulf, which interestingly falls along Brexit-related lines: two-thirds of Labour remainers believe the crisis justifies more state intervention, compared to only one in five Conservative leavers. The pandemic has barely shifted views, despite all that clapping for carers and key workers. While 82% of Labour remainers believed Britain was unequal before the coronavirus outbreak, that view is shared by just 53% of Conservative leavers. What should be done about it now? That depends on how the question is phrased: use the word “redistribution” and support for action is just 48%, but phrase it as “government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels” and support rises to 62%. Tax those who are very rich and companies, but not themselves, is roughly how that translates, as in much other polling.

The one question of disadvantage on which most agree is inequality of place. Some 61% agree that inequalities between more and less deprived areas are the most serious kind. Paul Johnson, head of the IFS, for whom this research forms part of its Deaton Review of Inequalities, finds this startling. He puzzles over whether people mean north and south, say Burnley versus Twickenham, or do they, he hopes, mean the divide between poor and rich districts everywhere? London, for example, may have grotesque wealth among City bankers, but it has the most poverty too, and he says, is by far the hardest hit by unemployment caused by the pandemic. Averages deceive wickedly.

“Take the real divide between graduates and non-graduates,” Johnson says. “After counting housing costs, a graduate in Burnley has the same income as one in Twickenham, but lots more graduates living in Twickenham give it a high average.” Can that simple fact be explained, so people realise that levelling up is not just big projects in the north, but levelling up low incomes everywhere?

These findings will warm the cockles of Conservative hearts, but present painful dilemmas for Labour. Tackling inequality is Labour’s great cause, but that may be a rebarbative word with too many voters. Paul Johnson recalls, “Tony Blair never mentioned inequality, yet with tax credits, did more than any government to ease poverty.” Blair spoke instead of “social exclusion”. Those who criticise Keir Starmer for his caution should study this report in depth.

Most depressing is how many people attribute success and failure only to hard work and ambition: people believe this is a meritocracy, not a system governed by birth and luck. Prof Duffy talked of how since the 1970s individual blame has replaced systemic injustice as people’s explanation for inequality. Britain was at its most equal in 1975, but with the blast of Thatcherism that took the lid off top earnings and saw bottom earnings fall back, came a dose of Americanised individualism. More than half the workforce belonged to a union in the 1970s, and they were vectors not just of power, but political education. Now only 23% are members and unions’ political influence is weak in public discourse. The collective is replaced with a warped idea of merit, disseminated by the right, deliberately ignoring the social injustices that predestine futures from birth.

Because we have to live in hope, and yet also cleave to realism, this research suggests the best way to engage voters with inequality is through locality and place. But whisper the word.



The Guardian

By EDITOR

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