Power, Privilege and Papers

This week has already been an interesting one in highlighting the moral decay that accompanies extreme inequality and vast concentrations of wealth.  In fact it’s difficult to find a better illustration of too much power falling into too few hands than revelations that wealthy bankers may have been putting pressure on newspapers to not run, or even remove, critical stories.  But if this seems depressingly familiar, this week has also presented a few glimpses of a hopeful future.

Yesterday saw both the launch of the New Economics Foundation’s new social settlement and the Church of England’s letter advising its congregations to engage with politics. Both offer similar analyses of the rot inequality causes at the heart of society. They even have some similarities in pointing in the direction of a solution.

The CofE’s letter highlights, in a section on the Christian world view, that the bible is “not only ‘biased to the poor’, as often noted, but warns constantly against too much power falling into too few hands. When it does, human sympathies are strained to breaking point.” This prediction is borne out by the evidence in the Spirit Level and elsewhere that inequality erodes trust and community participation. But this alone barely touches on the inequalities of power that flow from the inequalities of wealth and income which exist in our society.

Whilst increased income and wealth have bought more power for the richest in society, those with the least have seen their control over their everyday lives diminished. Power and control is being removed from those who already have very little both by large companies and by an ‘overbearing’ state. Those working on low wages have seen employers increasingly monitoring their employee’s actions and dictating their work life down to the smallest detail. Meanwhile governments welfare to work policies have focused on removing choice from those looking for work and instead forcing them into specific work preparation schemes, even where these have been shown to not increase the likelihood of them getting a job.

This concentration of power and resources into too few hands is not only inefficient, it is immoral, as both NEF and the CofE recognise. But are there alternatives? NEF in its report on a new social settlement suggests that we should instead set a goal of “an equal chance for everyone to enjoy the essentials of a good life, to fulfil their potential, and to participate in society” which mirrors the biblical call to life in all its fullness. The CofE in its letter calls for a Big Society where the strength of local communities can be harnessed to solve problems. This is matched in the NEF report by a call for co-production where service providers work with service users and the local community to run better services and for a greater role of mutuals and community run organisations in the economy.

There is a growing consensus that inequality is toxic to our society. The conclusions of NEF and the CofE only add to this. But despite huge public support for reducing inequality, there seems to prevail an attitude amongst politicians that this is naked ‘populism’. If the weight of evidence doesn’t appeal to them, they should recognise that sometimes, when the vast majority of people believe something looks and feels wrong…it is. 

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor