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OPINION3 December 2018

Social inequality in a post-truth world

Brexit Media Opinion Public Sector Trends UK

For evidence on social inequality to cut through, researchers need to tell stories about what really matters to voters now and improve their understanding of the new dividing lines changing behaviour, says Becky Cartmell.

Social inequality has been part of life for as long as humans have existed. The battle between the ‘haves and have nots’ has been a primary driver in British voting patterns throughout modern history, with lower earners typically voting left and higher earners voting right.

IFF’s latest seminar, ‘Dividing Lines – the Role of Evidence in Reducing Social Inequality’, provided an evidence-led take on what this gap means in today’s world, highlighting how the research sector might benefit from widening its focus on this historic economic divide.  

The economic story

Most in the research and policy worlds will be familiar with the evidence of the economic story, showing that the gap between the highest and lowest earners has shot up in the last 30 years and that the UK ranks among the most unequal societies in the developed world (ranking 6th by the Gini coefficient in 2015 ).

Most will be aware of the plethora of data behind Danny Dorling’s powerful critiques of UK policy and the recent attacks on the richest 1%. Speaker Matt Whittaker of the Resolution Foundation highlighted an additional layer to this analysis, demonstrating that although the extent of inequality has on the face of it remained broadly consistent over the last 20 years, if we look at income after housing costs then it has in fact continued to rise. This is compounded by a slowdown in economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis which has seen average annual income decrease in real-terms for the poorest households and lowered the general mood of the country.

IFF’s Alistair Kuechel outlined how the financial services market and the government-led UK Financial Capability Strategy have attempted to address the impact of economic inequality on the financially squeezed portion of the public, offering support to improve people’s ability to manage their money more effectively through free online banking products like Pockit, and by using regulation to reduce the ‘poverty premium’. While these new initiatives were warmly received, the audience reverted to the core problem of the income gap and why the public and policy makers are failing to take notice of it. 

Falling on deaf ears

Public awareness of the poverty premium is low, and graphs of the Gini coefficient rarely make the front pages. Indeed, it was the lack of traction gained by the extensive evidence on the issue, diligently produced by the research sector, that emerged as the over-arching theme of the seminar. While the Guardian columnist and broadcaster Polly Toynbee accepted that most politicians are conscious of the issue (look at Theresa May’s ‘burning social injustices’ speech on the steps of Downing Street) they are failing to use the wealth of evidence available to shape new policies.

So, why aren’t people listening? Perhaps this is a symptom of Trump’s post-truth world. The feeling from Toynbee was that the research world is failing to tell the economic story in a human way, to really engage people on an individual level.

Whittaker, however, took this one step further, revealing through his Brexit analysis that there are other stories at play, which researchers and policy-makers alike need to explore and employ before we can have a real impact.

The Brexit factor

Brexit has shone a light on dividing lines that go beyond economic inequality and cut across income differences and left/right voting patterns. While income was a factor, it was intertwined with other divides between, to name a few, students and workers, home owners and renters, and those who perceive that their communities are getting along or drifting apart. 

Perhaps the most important factor straddling all these issues was whether or not voters had a degree. Importantly, while we have a wealth of evidence on economic inequality, this is only one of a multitude of inequalities that the individual perceives as relevant to them today and questions remain unanswered about how these other factors affect individual choices. Whittaker suggested that if the Remain campaign had identified and engaged with these lesser-known divides, the referendum result could have swung the other way.

When it comes to increasing the impact of research, we were left with the feeling that it is less an issue of poor story-telling, and more an issue of telling the wrong story. If we want evidence about social inequality to cut through the untruths, maybe we need to leave Danny Dorling’s graphs on the shelf and tell stories that speak to what else really matters to voters now. We need to improve our understanding of the new lines that are changing behaviour today.

Becky Cartmell is senior research executive at IFF Research

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