Report from How Inequality Became The Issue – Five years of the Spirit Level

Last night The Equality Trust held an event celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Spirit Level’s (TSL) publication. The event featured the book’s authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson discussing how research has built on TSL’s findings and where the debate should go next. There were then responses from representatives from the three major political parties: Guy Opperman, the Conservative MP for Hexham; Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rianham and Julian Huppert, the Liberal Demcorat MP for Cambridge. Below are some of the highlights from the discussion. You can find more on twitter by searching for #tsl5.  

An audio recording of the event can be listened to here.


Kate Pickett:

  • Ours was a simple empirical based approach. But new meta-analyses and time series of studies are now proving what we already knew
  • In particular, we’re learning much more about how inequality gets under our skin.
  • Status anxiety in more unequal societies goes all the way to the top. More unequal societies are less likely to see people help their neighbours, have less civic participation like voting, and less cultural participation.
  • Where you rank, not the amount of income you receive, is what is important
  • People are looking at new measures that go beyond GDP and growth to determine progress.


Richard Wilkinson:

  • There are no longer residential communities; people don’t know their neighbours. But people do know the people they work with, and there is much more that can be done to build community here.
  • But weakening of the labour movement in the late 70s a big driver of inequality.
  • And large pay ratios are a very good way to make many people feel insignificant and undervalued.
  • Institutional investors are also a problem, as they have so many investments it is difficult for them to hold people to account.
  • There are a lack of democratic restraints on business and the wealthiest.
  • We need to encourage employee representation on boards and employee ownership.


Guy Opperman:

  • Some suggest that reducing inequality is something Conservatives should not really touch, but I entirely disagree.
  • A lot can be done at the local level, and MPs need to look at their constituencies and what they can do. LEPs and local authorities have huge powers that should be targeted.
  • For example we’re looking strongly at the development of local banks, run by people in the interests of those people. Essentially an expanded credit union. We need to make banking serve the community.
  • But it is also about encouraging aspiration, and looking at other mechanisms like education.


Jon Cruddas:

  • TSL really caught a wave – unfashionable arguments became fashionable again.
  • There’s been a narrow focus on redistributive approach to inequality – essentially cash transfers. This misses a lot of the richness and depth of TSL’s conclusions.
  • We want to look far more at system design – predistribution, agencies of power, economic durability and such.  Elements that get to the fundamentals of inequality rather than simple cash transfers that can be reversed, and may meet targets rather than effect change.


Julian Huppert:

  • As someone with a background in academia I have a temptation to say I disagree with some of the correlation v causality in TSL. But this doesn’t really matter. There is a strong argument that inequality in and of itself is a bad thing.
  • Some of the problems haven’t been helped by one-dimensional analysis and reporting. For example pensions increases may increase inequality, but do we really think this is the case?
  • I think there is a need to communicate through real-world examples, there is a simpler, clearer story beyond the statistics.