Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Are we bothered by inequality?

One of the central electoral campaign themes of the Labour Party is inequality. Economic and social inequality has certainly figured prominently in the public debate over the last couple of years, spurred by discussions about bankers' salaries and bonuses for CEOs. The Miliband camp argue that attitudes of British people have fundamentally shifted from the Blairite cavalier approach ('Not bothered about the filthy rich') to significant levels of concerns about wage inequality. But is this true?

In the journal Political Insight, a team of authors published a summary of the research on British political culture. Their study investigated whether political culture fosters specific social attitudes over the long run. Whilst their results reveal some interesting correlations between longitudinal shifts in attitudes and potential changes in political culture, some findings from the British Social Attitudes Survey can also be read with Miliband's claim about shifting views on economic inequality in mind. The figure below shows the responses stratified by age of respondents and year of survey to the question: 'Thinking of income levels generally in the UK today, would you say the gap between those with high incomes and those with low incomes is (1) too large; (2) about right; or (3) too small?'

Is the gap between the rich and poor too large (high values agree) Britain 1983–2012, by age
From:The British Social Attitudes Survey, 1983–2012.
The diagram clearly shows that there has been widespread concern about income inequality across all age groups in the 1990s, then largely petering out during the Blair years. Interestingly, looking at the years 2010 and later, there is no reversal in the aggregated responses to the high levels of concern under Thatcher and Major. The survey results appear to indicate that, with the exception of the age group between 55 and 70, concern with income inequality remains low. Moreover, the younger generation registers the lowest levels of concern with the issue of income inequality compared to all other age groups, a finding that contrasts sharply with the anecdotal (ostensibly wrong) evidence of young people on barricades (and in occupy camps) in the UK protesting against income inequality.

This has also implications for the campaign of the Miliband camp. If income inequality does not appear to be a major concern of people in Britain, it is unlikely to be a major motivating factor to vote either.


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