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Poverty, inequality and a flourishing democracy
By Graham Whitham

As we discussed in the last newsletter, the Grenfell Tower disaster starkly illustrated the tragic consequences of people in power not listening or responding to the concerns of people living on low incomes. What created the conditions that allowed the voices of people with very serious concerns to be ignored and what does this mean for our democracy and the ability of policy to respond to high levels of poverty and inequality?

Notwithstanding the recent increase in turnout among certain groups at the recent General Election, in the UK there is a strong social and age related gradient to voting patterns. The better off someone is, the more likely they are to vote. The same goes when it comes to age, older people are more likely to put their cross in a box when polling day comes around. The consequence is disproportionate concern by political parties for the interests of particular groups of the population because those groups are more likely to vote, and limited concern for the interests of those groups that vote in smaller numbers.

This creates a vicious cycle whereby parts of society feel neglected by political parties and withdraw further from the voting booth, as parties increasingly hone their message to those groups that turnout. If political parties don’t appear to be offering you anything or don’t speak to your concerns, why bother voting?

The effect is to warp political debate so that the importance of issues that affect only a small proportion of the population, say for example taxes on high earners or high levels of wealth, have a heightened and exaggerated place within political debates. The consequence appears to be, in the UK at least, rising inequality as policy responds to the perceived needs of the better off (limiting tax rises, creating the conditions for greater concentration of wealth etc).

Discussed in detail in political theory is the idea that democracy should be self-correcting when it comes to economic inequality. Or put it another way, in a democracy public opinion should act as a break on ever increasing levels of inequality. Increases in inequality should coincide with increases in support for redistribution, as the public demand policies that ensure wealth is spread more evenly.

That isn’t what has happened in the UK, or in a number of other liberal democracies in recent decades. Inequality has continued to rise and support for redistribution has declined. Whilst variations in turnout dependent on age and social class are central to this, there’s more to it than political parties simply responding to the interests of groups more likely to vote.

How the public feel about poverty, inequality and social mobility is also part of the story. Whilst support for reducing certain types of poverty, such as pensioner poverty, may remain, entrenched high levels of economic inequality can become an accepted norm. Most people may agree that inequality is too high, but may not agree that policies that redistribute wealth are a ‘price worth paying’ or, perhaps more importantly, don’t believe those benefiting from redistributive policies are ‘deserving beneficiaries’. If you believe poverty is a result of personal rather than structural failures, and that all wealth held by the rich is deserved and hard earned, you’re less likely to support redistributive policies that help drive down poverty and inequality.

Graham Whitham, Director of GMPA and author of reports for GM Poverty Action

Graham Whitham

Similarly, even if you’re on a low or middle income, if you believe redistribution of wealth limits social mobility and may hinder your ability to increase your income in the future, you’re less likely to support policies that drive down poverty and inequality than someone who recognises that high levels of inequality can bring social mobility to a grinding halt.

Democracy needs to be reinvigorated if we’re to address these challenges. The voices of people in poverty must be heard and their concerns responded to. People on all incomes need to believe that the issues that matter to them are being addressed, and that political parties have something to offer them and are interested in meeting their needs. Public policy debates must be better informed so that people have the evidence and knowledge they need to understand how best policy can address major challenges, including poverty and inequality.