Monday, June 13, 2011

"The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" UNISON, IER & The Equality Trust

 Last Thursday evening I went to a talk by Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" in the new UNISON HQ in Euston. It was co-sponsored by The Institute of Employment Rights (IER), UNISON and the Equality Trust.

The meeting was Chaired by John Hendy QC (below 2nd left). UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Bronwyn McKenna (3rd left) welcomed everyone and spoke about the grim environment that Unions face. "We are being attacked by the Government, employers and the Courts. The information in The Spirit Level could be one of our ways to stop being defensive and go on the attack. It is clear that the health and well being of a country is also linked positively to levels of trade union density. Since countries where trade unions are strong tend to be more equal and successful societies". I love her quote from the Supreme Court

The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.” Unfortunately of course this was not the British Supreme Court - but the Canadian.
UNISON Head of Health, Karen Jennings (4th left) was the next speaker and she told us that she believes this book is as important as the research carried out in the 18th and 19th century into poverty which proved that those who lived in filth and overcrowding died the earliest. 

Professor Richard Wilkinson (left) and Kate Pickett (absent) wrote the "The Spirit Level”. I’ve read the book and seen him speak at least twice now. He keeps trying to say he is a boring speaker and you should not want to see him at all if you have read the book. However, each time I have heard him he has been entertaining and informative. 

Some key stuff (to me anyway):  Richard enjoys countering the arguments of the right who attack his book and who appear to believe that grinding poverty is actually good for you! Yep.

He believes that “the left” lost its way when Marxism was discredited by the loss of freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  We should be confident of a better future, but this must be based on empirical research. It’s not good enough just to say we want an alternative without doing the maths. He thinks that his book is a small contribution to change.

I only really understood that night that it is not only the right who will have “a problem” with the “The Spirit Level”. While the United States is the most unequal country with the corresponding worse health and social failings. The 2nd greatest advanced capitalist society, Japan, is the most equal and has by far the best health and social outcomes. Both societies are very different with regard to individualism and paternalism but their actual economic systems are pretty similar.

Richard thinks it is bizarre that we have such a wealthy material society for so many but still have so many social failings. We are richer than ever but look at levels of self harm at schools, drug abuse, violence and levels of mental health. When you map economic growth in rich countries there is a diminishing returns curve. There is no significant difference in life expectancy amongst the very rich countries but there is when related to income.

The Spirit Level is not a theory of everything but a theory of a problem that tends to be common.  

How can you explain why 23% of the UK have mental health problems but only 8% of Germans? Why have some countries 300% increases in mental health when compared to others?

Why does Canada and the USA have such different homicide rates from the use of firearms - yet similar levels of Gun ownership?  

How can the prison population of countries be predicted so accurately by the degree of income inequality in that country?

Why do harsher prison sentences and use of the death penalty tend to be found in more unequal societies?

Why is social mobility (the Cameron “Big Society” wanted outcome) higher in more equal societies? Why is Richard able to tease audiences across the pond by saying that if they want to live the American dream then statistically they should move to Denmark?

Why is infant mortality in Sweden when compared to England and Wales better in all social classes including the rich?

Why is income inequality so damaging to health and well being?  This question is I think a problem that has not yet been properly explained.  On the one hand it may seem like the "bleeding obvious". But where is the empirical proof? Richard thinks it is down to Psychosocial risk factors such as
"Feeling of inferiority"..."low social status"... weak social affiliations" and maybe the sheer stress of being poor and downtrodden.   This makes sense but not entirely convincing in the absence of the statistical proof that makes the rest of the book so compelling.  Still, this proves that it is not the theory of everything and does not distract from the overwhelming power of the main argument which is backed by tons of research.

In the Q&A I mentioned that we are trying in our sector (the “not for profit” and voluntary sector) to introduce the principles of “The Spirit Level”. Since surely if it is bad for society to be unequal then it is as corrosive and damaging for such inequality to take place in the workplace? I asked if there was a trade union guide to becoming a “Spirit Level Negotiator”. Richard replied that apparently the Swedish Trade unions have published a cartoon guide and others have done some work on this. One member of the panel said "you only have to ask".  I will.

So there you have it. If you work for any organisation where the income gap between the top and the bottom is too high - then you work for a bad, bad company

UPDATE: Richard will be speaking to a fringe at this years UNISON NDC conference.  I will post timings and venue as soon as poss.


Robert said...

What you have said here is basic trade Union ideology of socialism, perhaps you should pop down and have a word with Miliband and his tribe.

Socialism is having a harder time these days in Labour then it is in the Tories, the Tories are listening while labour would have been in Cameron's office asking for help to get things through.

Poverty and overcrowding I will accept, but poverty and dirt I do not accept, although overcrowding living conditions of the Victorian era and to some degree post ww1 and 2 caused people to live in squalor, but for me I lived in real poverty as my father was a POW in the UK he could not work for the first five years of his life only in farming he was paid
15/- thats fifteen shillings a week, we lived hand to mouth, of course when he was allowed to go the farm put up his wages to £5 a week but he was trained and went to work in the building trade.

I knew all about being hungry, but we were spotless my home was spotless we went to school in second hand clothes but you not see us wearing dirty clothes.

So yes it's important to in a Union, sadly to many Unions have become to political with to many looking at moving up the political ladder and less on looking after the membership, now you have falling memberships.

Anonymous said...

Worth a read too

Damien McKee said...

How do you feel about mp's like Phillip Davies of Shipley bemoaning the Equality Bill now Act?

John Gray said...

Hi Robert

Yes, don't mention the "S" word. it will scare the horses (well, the Daily Hate anyway). The next time Ed comes over for tea and biscuits and begs me to tell him how to sort those 'orrible Tories out - I will mention it.

You tell a story that my Nain would have recognised. I wish you would stop using a alias. I can't take you seriously as "Robert". Which is a shame.

Unions have always been political. Long may they do so. The British working class have used the ballot box to win rights and buy power. The unions are facing massive ideologically attacks but I think it is about time we stop blaming everyone else for our decline. As our GS Dave Prentis said - the unions were not created for the good times, we were created for the bad times. So our time has certainly come.

Hi anon
I assume you mean the recent Islington Fairness commission. Yes, good stuff. I used it as part of our evidence to our employer on having more equal pay.

Hi Damien
Utter contempt

Damien McKee said...

I take it John you would be opposed to the group known as Campaign Against Political Correctness(who have MP'S Andrew Percy and Phillip Davies as spokesmen)given that they opposed the Equality Act because they believed it should be best person for the job rather than who or what they are,defended the golli dolls as innocent and quoted several women,ethnic minorities and LGBT people who oppose Political Correctness!

John Gray said...

Hi Damien

I genuinely don’t think there is excessive "political correctness". It is on the whole - an invention of the tabloid press (as with excessive ‘elf and safety). Some people may be genuinely concerned about this issue but most of the people I have met who bang on about it are just bigots trying to justify their views. IMO

Damien McKee said...

I take it you would rightly be appalled at Tory mp Phillip Davies comment that people with diabilities should work for less than the minimum wage in order to get their foot on the ladder?

John Gray said...

Hi Damien

Same old tories - not every single one of them of course but it is still the Nasty Party.

Anonymous said...

It was socialism also that got discredited by the Soviet Union. Whereas Marxism failed because it was, well, marxist, socialism has not failed because it has not been tried anywhere really and workers have been deterred from voting for it as it gets such a bad press. But the real problem facing socialism is that with the global economy you cannot have socialism in one country. And having it internationally is more than a bit tricky. This is not to say we cannot construct mechanisms to support and empower working people; it's just that they will be living under a capitalist economy however mitigated by interventionist measures.

John Gray said...

Hi anon 19 June

Not sure if that is true. Yes, there has never been any "true" marxist socialist states. But perhaps there is a reason why this has been so? I don't think it is plausible to keep blaming the press (no matter how hostile).

I think that "The Spirit Level" is potentially more relevant to Socialism now than Marx ever was.