Enemy Of The People: How Inequality Undermines Democracy

It is generally known that greater democracy is conducive to greater equality but the mechanisms whereby inequality undermines democracy are perhaps less well understood. 

It is therefore welcome that the IPPR think-tank has produced a report this week that sheds some much-needed light on this area. It defines political inequality as a situation where certain individuals or groups have greater influence over political decision-making and benefit from unequal outcomes through those decisions, despite procedural equality in the democratic process. The report finds that political inequality is intimately bound up with socio-economic inequalities and observes that as material inequalities have widened in the past three decades so has political inequality.

A key finding is that 63% of poorer voters believe that democracy addresses their interests “badly”. This is the basis for the widespread voter disengagement we have seen in recent times. The flipside is that better off voters do see greater merit in the democratic system as it appears to better serve their own interests and so they engage with it more and, unsurprisingly, come to dominate political parties, policies and discourses. One only has to consider how small political party membership is now and how narrow the funding base is for our political parties to see this in action.

It is the material tectonic plates of our society that are diverging underneath our politics and which are pulling our democratic system apart. Material differences create social distances and these social distances undermine trust – in institutions as well as people – such that we become suspicious that anything can be done or doubt that those we elect even have our best interests at heart. And just in case we needed further evidence, a review of recent international studies in the Washington Post this week gave yet more grist to the mill. The lesson is clear, if the UK is to avoid a self-reinforcing downward spiral of waning democracy and burgeoning plutocracy, we will have to address our extreme economic inequality first.

Bill Kerry, Supporters & Local Groups Manager