How Labour can Explain Inequality

Ed Miliband has already said he will put the idea behind The Spirit Level at the heart of his manifesto. He recognises that the body of evidence cited in the book has massive implications for Labour’s policies. The history of scientific ideas entering mainstream politics is not auspicious though. Climate change and drugs are two examples of issues where policy lags disastrously far behind scientific evidence.

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Some people hold entrenched views on either side of any debate, but answering why some open-minded people aren’t convinced by the evidence is key to shifting the weight of public opinion. The answer lies in those people failing to engage with the evidence – it takes a certain way of thinking to absorb data and construct a coherent explanation of it. Too often evidence is presented in isolation, in a didactic manner, and with no reference to the underlying causes. Labour needs to explain not merely that inequality is harmful, but why inequality is harmful.

If the numerous correlations of inequality and bad outcomes in The Spirit Level are simply held up as irrefutable evidence, they will be refuted by ideological opponents (as they already have been) and claimed to be politics-based evidence. Labour needs to dig beyond the correlations to the underlying causation, because the general public are much more likely to latch on to a narrative of how inequality changes behaviour. This will be more comprehensible, logical, memorable, and much easier to rally round as a cause than dry statistics.

This format is too short to fully explain why inequality is harmful, but a brief account follows. Humans are a highly socially hierarchical species. Game theoretical models show that cooperation between people is adaptive when the hierarchy is relatively equal. This is because there isn’t much to gain by trying to get ahead of someone else. The more unequal it becomes however, the more one stands to gain by moving up the hierarchy – or lose by going in the opposite direction. So cooperation is less adaptive, and people behave more competitively in an attempt to get one over on others. Social status becomes the be-all and end-all.

This competitive behaviour and the anticipation of being on the receiving end of it leads to a decrease in trust. People also become more stressed and anxious as a result. Unhealthy (comfort) eating increases which in turn increases obesity. Drug abuse goes up as people self-medicate. The extreme social pressure leads to much more mental illness. Children forced to grow up too fast are less well educated and have more teenage pregnancies. People obsessed with their social status react more violently to being disrespected. And needless to say, social mobility languishes.

Inequality changes the rules of the game, and brings out the worst in our malleable human nature. Labour could highlight this fact to those who have a pessimistic view of human nature. And they could finally offer an alternative model of society to the current broken system, one grounded in science not ideology.


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