Over the past few decades, economic inequality has returned to contemporary political debate with a vengeance. From the chants of ‘We are the 99%’ of the Occupy Movement to the Labour Party 2019 General Election slogan of ‘People before Privilege’, inequalities in Britain and beyond have become explicitly politicised. What might in the past have seemed like arcane tomes of inequality statistics, such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, have become bestsellers. However, popular attention to income inequality across wealthy democracies has met with very different political responses. In the UK, the axes of Britain’s traditional class politics appear to have flipped, as Boris Johnson’s government stressed the mantra of ‘levelling up’ poorer parts of the country and moving away from the politics of a privileged London-based ‘elite’.
Has economic inequality created new forms of political inequality in Britain? Has political inequality risen in line with economic inequality? Is the political process able to respond to economic inequality? By political inequality we mean systematic differences in citizens’ ability to influence the political process, whether that means through choosing to vote at all, how they vote, whether politicians reflect the population they serve, and whether the policies that they produce favour one group over another.
In this chapter, we explore the relationship between political and economic inequality in the UK. We begin in the next section by setting out what scholars mean by ‘political inequality’ and the channels that connect potential voters to the policies that governments ultimately produce. We separate out this chain into several components. Economic inequalities can influence political inequality at any point along this chain – who votes, who they vote for, who politicians are and what policies are produced. We discuss what existing work in political science tells us about the connection between economic and political inequality, and then argue that rather than a singular trend towards more or less political inequality in response to economic inequality, the intersection of economic changes in the UK with British political institutions has produced particular patterns of inequality – and responsiveness – which do not simply mirror economic trends. In so doing, we make three arguments.
First, we argue that growing economic inequality likely has contributed to some new forms of participatory inequalities: whether citizens vote or participate in non-electoral channels through which they can influence the political process equally. To analyse participation and representation, we look at the voting behaviour of the British electorate and, in turn, examine how three key forms of economic inequality – income, education and housing wealth – shape these electoral outcomes. We do so by analysing multiple waves of the British Election Study from 1964 to 2019, focusing on how various socio-economic characteristics of potential voters alter their choice to vote and for whom. We see growing gaps across income, education and homeownership groups in the propensity to turn out to vote over the period – indicating a growing political inequality in terms of political participation in modern Britain.
Second, on questions of representation – how the demographic and socio-economic differences among voters filter into (a) which parties they vote for and (b) the backgrounds of politicians who represent them – both the relationship to economic inequality and the over-time trends are less straightforward. As in other countries, we see shifts in the way in which demographic groups behave politically. Whereas voters with higher incomes and homeowners have largely continued to vote for the Conservative Party, in the last several elections this pattern has faded considerably. Even more strikingly, there has been a systematic reversal of voting patterns among highly educated voters who have shifted from the Conservative Party to Labour over the past few decades.
We also examine the role of local housing wealth in shaping General Election voting back to 1997, finding that the pattern of constituencies with expensive housing voting Conservative has evaporated in recent elections, with the turning point appearing to be the Brexit referendum of 2016, which has shaken up traditional class patterns of voting. This suggests that ‘first-dimension’ politics of class are partly countered by a ‘second dimension’ of cultural or group-identity attitudes, although cultural mobilisation may still be more muted in the UK than in other advanced democracies.
When it comes to ‘descriptive’ representation – the degree to which the demographic and socio-economic make-up of politicians resembles that of the population from which they are drawn – the picture is also mixed. Examining data on MP background and comparing it with changes since 1979 in the population, we find general evidence of convergence between the two. However, the mechanisms of convergence vary substantially. In some cases, such as gender and ethnic representation, Parliament has moved towards the people. In others, such as university education, the people now look more like Parliament.
In other words, demographic characteristics such as income, education and wealth have increasingly pushed in different directions in terms of structuring voting, meaning that we cannot draw a simple line between socio-economic status and voting behaviour in the UK any more. This trend exists elsewhere (e.g. Piketty, 2020), but in the UK it intersects with established British political parties to create a (ongoing) process of realignment within existing political parties, which creates distinct representational dynamics. An ongoing question is whether this realignment in voting has moderated some of the translation of economic inequality into political representation.
Third, we argue that the political process shows more responsiveness to some forms of inequality than others. Far from uniformly ‘correcting’ economic inequality or universally intensifying it, we see that policies over the last 30 years have been highly responsive to the needs of pensioners and older voters, but more variably responsive to the insecurities faced by working-age adults, renters, younger people and those in particularly deprived geographic areas.
We argue that the combination of the participatory inequalities outlined above, with class and geographic partisan realignment, creates particular patterns of downstream responsiveness in the UK electoral system. While parties across the political spectrum have paid increasing attention to insecurity amongst the elderly, there has been less stable policy attention to insecurity amongst younger citizens or to geographic and wealth inequalities. This asymmetry arises in part due to the changing incentives for political parties to tackle inequalities, given the combination of their changing bases and the first-past-the-post electoral system.
We conclude by examining the perceived legitimacy of the British government among the general public, finding that the public has become somewhat less likely to feel listened to and that very large gaps remain across educational, income and wealth groups in these perceptions.
Our focus is general – thus we only briefly look at differences across the countries of the UK, despite important differences across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We also focus largely on inequalities in education, wealth and income, while recognising that other inequalities, such as gender or racial inequalities, and the intersection of these inequalities, also matter. We nonetheless show changes in the nature of participation, representation, responsiveness and legitimacy that are deeply consequential for understanding contemporary British democracy. In line with Beramendi, Besley and Levi (2022), we see these as distinct forms of inequality, whose dynamics need to be studied in tandem with economic inequality.
Cite this as:
Ansell, B. and Gingrich, J. (2022), ‘Political inequality’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, https://ifs.org.uk/inequality/political-inequality-chapter