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2 December 2022

Political inequality: reasons for optimism?

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the very interesting chapter by Ben Ansell and Jane Gingrich, entitled ‘Political Inequality’. Ansell and Gingrich (2022) first thoroughly discuss the concept of political inequality (and provide a very complete overview of the state of the literature on the topic). Then they investigate empirically whether political inequality has risen in line with economic inequality over the past few decades in the United Kingdom. This is a particularly important question, as political inequality can easily generate an inequality trap. In other words, as a result of the growing role of private money in the democratic process, economic inequalities may reinforce political inequalities, which in turn exacerbate economic inequalities; for example, see Cagé (2018) and see also Page and Gilens (2017) for evidence of this vicious circle in the case of the United States. Ansell and Gingrich tackle this question in a very systematic way, taking into account various dimensions of political inequality: who votes, who they vote for, and who politicians are.

I was particularly impressed by the new results that they present on the role of local housing wealth in shaping General Election voting back to 1997 – what they call the ‘end of class geography’. Ansell and Gingrich (2022) show, in particular, that the pattern of constituencies with affluent housing that vote Conservative has evaporated since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Next, they show that not only the value of housing but also the structure of housing tenure has political implications. These are new results in the literature – which the authors relate to findings by Chou and Dancygier (2021), who argue that New Labour deliberately moved away from its voter base in social housing – and they deserve to be taken seriously by researchers interested in better understanding the determinants of voting behaviours. I am sure that the chapter by Ansell and Gingrich will pave the way for new research on this topic in the next few years.

In this commentary, I would like to focus on the last dimension of political inequality that Ansell and Gingrich consider – who politicians are – and highlight that it is strongly linked to the first two: who votes, and who they vote for. I will first argue that political representativeness (or the lack of) may at least partly explain the rise in abstention. I will then highlight the role played by campaign finance regulations in explaining the relationship between political and economic inequalities. Finally, beyond the question of economic inequality, using the example of gender under-representation, I will argue that shifting descriptive representation may have concrete policy consequences.

There is a growing literature suggesting that geography has gradually replaced income as a driver of party identification; for example, in the case of the US, Hacker et al. (2022) highlight that the population density of the place in which one lives explains heightened partisan polarisation. Future research needs to go beyond density to improve our understanding of the role played by geography in voting behaviour, and in particular to investigate the importance of the availability of affordable housing. For existing evidence on the relationship between the pattern of house prices and support for far-right parties, see Adler and Ansell (2020).

Cite this as:

Cagé, J. (2022), ‘Political inequality: reasons for optimism?’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,