The problem of inequality

A recent report, Cities Outlook, places Leeds as the third most unequal city in the UK. In an article on the report, the Yorkshire Evening Post points out that despite something of an economic boom in Leeds stark disparities remain. In Holbeck, for instance, 15 per cent of the population are in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance, while in Weetwood the equivalent figure is 0.2 per cent. The article makes interesting if depressing reading.

An increasing number of commentators argue that inequality matters more than the political right think. Wilkinson and Pickett, in their book, The Spirit Level, argue that less equal societies are more likely to have higher levels of significant problems. Backed up by evidence, they show that more unequal societies score less well on measures for physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being.

Thomas Piketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, maintains that, historically, evidence shows that the return from capital has been greater than the rate of economic growth. In other words, inherited wealth will earn more than income from work. In these circumstances, inequality grows as wealth becomes more concentrated at the top. As the journalist, Paul Mason, points out: ‘So the fact that rich kids can swan aimlessly from gap year to internship to a job at father’s bank/ministry/TV network – while the poor kids sweat into their barista uniforms – is not an accident: it is the system working normally’.

The global picture on inequality is also profoundly worrying. According to a recent report by Oxfam, the wealthiest 1 per cent owns 48 per cent of the world’s wealth and is expected to rise 50 per cent by 2016.

In a stark warning about the effects of inequality, Will Hutton argues in his latest book, How Good We Can Be, that they can have quite profound implications:

The principal obstacle to the recreation of a sense of we – and along with it the shared vision, ambition and purpose for the country which is the necessary precondition for the extensive reforms that are needed – is inequality. Inequality is like a slow-growing but untreated cancer; it can grow with little apparent effect for a long time while the sufferer lives in happy ignorance. Occasionally there may be unexplained physical weaknesses and complaints that suggest something is awry, but other, less alarming explanations than cancer seem both more likely and comforting. Then suddenly the cancer begins to metastasise with catastrophic effects, but it is too late to stop its now obvious spread, and the implications are often fatal.

Societies, unlike individuals, do not die. But the cancer of inequality produces results that are equally catastrophic. Trust evaporates. There is no sense of common purpose. Creative social, economic and political interaction and deliberation becomes impossible. Capitalism distorts itself and ceases to innovate. Electorates become vulnerable to extreme populism from left or right.

So, the evidence increasingly shows the problems of inequality within a free market capitalist society. Perhaps it  would useful to discuss these matters at Unite Community meetings more and to reflect on what we can do at local level to highlight the evidence of inequality we encounter in our support centres and elsewhere. As trade unionists, of course, we must always press the case for greater wealth redistribution and support workers in their fight for decent wages.


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