The new politics of inequality

Circling in parts of the Labour party in the past couple of months has been a new book, The Spirit Level. Delegates cited it at the conference last weekend. It might become a sort of guidebook for the next Labour ministry.

The reason is in the subtitle: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. More accurately, the “more equal” might have been written “less unequal”.

In various ways, concern with inequality was at the core of the conference. Over the past 25 years our society has become much more unequal and is now one of the most unequal among rich countries. The Clark governments reduced that inequality a bit but the picture she left behind after nine years is a long way from the picture of 40 years ago when her hero, Norman Kirk, led Labour.

Of course, the conference had its diversions. Phil Goff said sorry, thereby underlining the electorate’s loss of love for the party he leads. (A tear-jerker film around Kirk’s time coined the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”)

Aspiring MP James Caygill and Goff policy adviser Marcus Ganley won over the conference to the idea that when National puts up its self-serving referendum to ditch MMP, Labour will argue for an “enhanced MMP” — all parties would have to get over the 5 per cent qualifying threshold (maybe cut to 4 per cent) to get list seats and there would be fewer list seats, allowing more and smaller electorates.

This might just head National off at the pass, given that in the last election voters demonstrated they are getting the hang of MMP, as Prime Minister John Key acknowledged in a press conference last month. Essentially, last year’s election was between the Labour side and the National side, much like in the old days except that each side was made up of more than one party.

But even Goff’s “sorry” and the MMP debate, the most heated of the conference, were tied back to The Spirit Level’s theme.

Authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have, in research over “more than 50 person-years between us”, mined a vast amount of data, much of it relatively recently available, to show that in rich countries health and social problems are greater in more unequal than in less unequal societies.

This is not just among the poor. “The vast majority of the population is harmed by greater inequality,” Wilkinson and Pickett say.

“Across whole populations rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal compared with the least unequal societies, people are five times as likely to be imprisoned, six times as likely to be clinically obese and murder rates may be many times higher.” More equal societies have more trust and higher self-esteem and less anxiety and social insecurity.

Recognise the picture?

Bill English could, for example, spend less precious taxpayers’ money building and running prisons — not to mention less money trying, mostly futilely, to fix up prisoners’ mental, addiction and other crime-inducing disabilities — if he reduced inequality.

That is music, even if sombre music, to Labour ears. It gives its younger MPs, including Phil Twyford who has trumpeted The Spirit Level for some time, a project and a rationale.

No longer do they have to rely on ideology. They can cite research brimming with numbers. It looks like science instead of “equity”.

But there is a snag. Wilkinson and Pickett describe themselves as epidemiologists and their book is an exercise in epidemiology. That is, they find and plot coincidences and correlations rather than identify scientific causality.

That methodology has respect. It has identified a relationship between substances, lifestyles and other influences and the incidence of various cancers. And Wilkinson and Pickett ran a lot of cross-checks: they insist the relationships between inequality and health and social problems in the rich world “are too strong to be dismissed as chance findings”.

But they also note nineteenth-century doctors’ rejection of just such a coincidental linking of doctors’ washing of hands with the reduction of deaths among mothers who had newly given birth. Not until scientists developed the germ theory of disease and demonstrated a causal link did washing hands win doctors’ universal acceptance.

So, while Labour MPs and activists might cite The Spirit Level as evidence that more redistribution to reduce inequality is justified, it is not conclusive evidence. “Public opinion will support the necessary political changes only if something like the perspective we outline in this book permeates the public mind,” Wilkinson and Pickett say.

Saying sorry and fiddling with MMP won’t do that. MPs will need to convince voters reducing inequality is good for them — and to do that they will need to go where Wilkinson and Pickett go only very lightly and argue that it will also be good for the economy, that is, voters’ material welfare.

There are economists who argue that. But they, too, have yet to gain mainstream recognition. Can Twyford and his mates?