Fée and Kober-Smith (eds) Inequalities in the UK

David Fée and Anémone Kober-Smith (eds), Inequalities in the UK: New discourses, evolutions and actions, Emerald Publishing, 2018, xx + 369 pp, 1 78714 480 4, hbk, £70

While prediction is always dangerous, the editors’ claim that ‘the inequality question is back and is here to stay’ (p. 1) is supported by the evidence that they gather in their introduction. The eighteen chapters that follow, written by thirty-two UK and French scholars, explore a wide variety of aspects of inequality in the UK, and between them offer diagnosis, occasional prescriptions, and occasional prognosis.

The brief first chapter discusses definitions of poverty and inequality, and offers a complex picture of income and wealth inequalities in the UK. Chapter 2 discusses the thesis that growing inequality generates lower economic growth and higher economic turbulence, and suggests that tackling inequality is an economic as well as a social imperative. Chapter 3 discusses the relevance of a ‘north/side divide’ in the UK, and finds political and identity divides as relevant as an economic one; chapter 4 broadens the agenda and shows how the patterns of social and cultural inequalities mirror those of economic inequalities; and chapter 5 finds that an increasing number of household incomes is falling below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Minimum Income Standards. Chapter 6 finds that in the UK market income inequality is high by European standards, but that an effective progressive tax system means that disposable income inequality is not as serious.

The first six chapters are mainly diagnosis. The second part of the book, about ‘political debates, public policies and outcomes’, begins with a chapter that traces the Labour Party’s changing understanding of inequality from 1997 to the present day: a shift towards meritocracy and social mobility at the beginning of this period (although accompanied by a much less recognised reduction in disposable income inequality), followed by a desire for ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘predistribution’, and now a return to redistribution as the solution. Authors should never confidently predict. The final sentence of this chapter reads ‘Labour under Corbyn is making absolute no headway …’ (p. 163).

Chapter 8 finds that the Department for Work and Pensions needs to collect better data if it is to fulfil its Public Sector Equality Duty obligation to report on the effects of policy change on vulnerable groups ( – this is of course a somewhat limited ‘equality duty’). Chapter 9 studies housing inequality; chapter 10 concludes that policies designed to increase income equality are needed if educational equality is to be improved; and in relation to health inequalities chapter 11 finds that universal policies benefit the poor more than policies targeted at the poor. Chapter 12 studies gender inequalities; and chapter 13 suggests that privileging Syrian disabled asylum seekers over other disabled asylum seekers constitutes an unwarranted inequality.

The third part of the book has its own title, ‘the governance of inequality: local initiatives and responses in a multi-level polity’, but in fact it continues the two previous themes of ‘diagnosis’ and ‘debates, policies and outcomes’. Chapter 14 reports on the experiences of unemployed young people in a small seaside town, and on local initiatives designed to assist them; and chapter 15 finds differences between approaches to ethnic diversity in London and Paris, but also finds that positive outcomes require city authorities to tackle ‘inequalities as a whole across all sectors of the population’ (p. 301). Chapter 16 finds the Scottish Government employing the powers that it possesses in relation to health and education as a means to tackling the income inequality that it has little ability to address directly. Chapter 17 finds that in Wales, policy on the reduction of inequality, and policy on the reduction of poverty, would need to be rather better integrated if inequality is to be tackled; and chapter 18 finds that the various peace accords in Northern Ireland since 1998 have made it possible to tackle inequality more effectively.

This is a wide-ranging book and a valuable introduction to the complexity of inequality in the UK. It might have been helpful to have been offered more detailed suggestions as to how policy should be shaped in order to tackle inequality, but where in various places the authors do discuss policy change we find a constant tension between an understanding of the value of universal services and a desire to provide additional resources for the poor in a context of constrained budgets. There is no concluding chapter. Perhaps this tension, which at the moment is at its clearest in chapter 16, should have been the theme of a final chapter by the editors.

It’s a pity that the country names have been printed upside down in the tables on pages 122-3.