Bill Kerry, founder-member, current secretary and one of four co-directors of the Equality Trust, spoke to Solidarity about the Con Dem cuts. The Equality Trust is a group of academics and writers including the authors of the book The Spirit Level, which showed with detailed statistics that “more equal societies almost always do better.”
The fact that the deficit is being addressed overwhelmingly by cuts to public spending and very little by tax rises on the better off can only mean that inequality will increase.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said the impact will clearly be regressive. The government has contested their assessment, but its only hope seems to be that the private sector will step forward to rescue the economy. I’m not sure how it can do that when the incomes of the poorest third to a half of the population will be reduced — where will the demand for goods and services come from? I think the big fear is that we will just follow the Irish path, which appears to be an ever downward spiral of economic contraction and associated despair.
Beyond the obvious, do you think there’ll be more pervasive and profound impacts on social inequality in the UK?
I fear that as inequality rises and social cohesion is placed under strain we will see a steadily hardening attitude from government and certain sections of the media. Our huge gap between rich and poor will be portrayed even more as somehow “natural” and a result of people just “not trying hard enough” to find work or, rather, price themselves into work.
So although I think inequality will worsen and become further entrenched under the cuts programme, perhaps the main pervasive change will be in the intensity and volume of arguments used to justify it. Some arguments will be harsh, some will be more sophisticated. Inequality may be recognised as a problem, but then the solution will be more and more desperate pleading for social mobility as the way out.
This is very much Nick Clegg’s line of argument at the moment. The problem is, of course, more unequal societies such as the UK are less socially mobile. In the latest edition of The Spirit Level there is further evidence of this in the new final chapter.
Some of the Trust’s work has focused on the psychological impact of inequality; how will the austerity measures (e.g. charging £9,000 a year for higher education) affect what we might call “the psychology of class” in the UK? Are people more likely to see social inequality as something that’s set in stone?
That is a worry. The education cuts and the associated restricted access for people from poorer backgrounds can only give rise to an idea, or a belief, that “higher education is not for the likes of us” and more and more young people from poorer and middle-income backgrounds will be restricted in terms of where they live, who they meet and what chances they have in life.
Those richer students who do manage to go into higher education are also less and less likely to mingle with anyone who isn’t also similarly well off. They too will be cut off from society in its broadest sense and be removed from the concerns of poorer people.
These sorts of social distances, which are already wide in the UK, can surely only get worse under the current education proposals, leading to higher levels of mistrust, anxiety and often poorer mental and physical health.
This in turns feeds into reduced social cohesion which can be characterised by a lack of kindness and fellow-feeling at one end of the spectrum and outright violence at the other. I think there is already a fairly well-developed sense of hopelessness and despair here in the UK — a feeling that nothing will change for the better, that our high level of inequality and related social problems cannot be fixed. At the moment, I can only see that feeling becoming more deep-rooted and more widespread as the cuts are rolled out.
What can people do to respond?
I think we need the broadest possible coalition of forces against the cuts themselves but also, crucially, against the logic of the cuts. The deficit actually presents an opportunity to argue for a more equal society, in that we can close the deficit by tax rises on the better off rather than imposing spending cuts on the poor. The Green New Deal group estimates that more than £100 billion a year is lost to tax evasion, tax avoidance and the non-collection of taxes already agreed. We do not have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem. This point needs to be made again and again.
I think the best chance of success is if the response to the cuts is as broadly based as possible. It needs to be an alliance of community and third sector groups, individuals, trade unions, local councils, faith groups and political organisations. It needs to range from disaffected Conservative and Lib Dem voters on the right and centre all the way through to those to the left of Labour.
I think the trade union movement can play a vital role here with their resources but they need to work (and be seen to be working) as part of this broader movement and not just on behalf of their members.
Finally, although things are very gloomy at the moment, I think people should not despair or give up hope. The economic crisis and the cuts are producing counter-narratives, ones that are more hopeful. I hope people see The Equality Trust as part of this. We aim to show that we can regain the idea of “The Good Society” and that our problems can be fixed by taking action to make our society more equal. There is another way.