Danny Dorling’s Peak Inequality provides powerful evidence of the damage that rising inequality has had across housing, education, health and demography, finds Sean Ledwith

Danny Dorling, Peak Inequality: Britain’s Ticking Time Bomb (Policy Press 2018), xii, 404pp.

Danny Dorling has deservedly acquired a reputation as one of the most incisive and trenchant critics of the austerity agenda in the UK today. In numerous works over the past decade or so, the current Professor of Geography at Oxford University has compiled a wealth of empirical data, quantifying the consequences of the application of rapacious neoliberalism by both the Cameron and May governments since the onset of recession at the end of the last decade.

Dorling does not write from an explicitly Marxist perspective nor is he a member of the Labour Party, or any political organisation for that matter. Yet the cumulative effect of his hugely impressive statistical dissections of contemporary British society is to make a compelling case for a political challenge to centuries of exploitation by the British elite along the lines envisaged by the sections of the radical left, most notably the Corbynite wing of Labour. The author suggests in this volume that the remarkable rise of Corbyn to the brink of Number 10 is a portent that this transformation is imminent:

‘A thousand people could take his place were he to fall, because what Corbyn really represents is a set of beliefs whose time has finally come. If it had not been him, it would have been someone like him and they too would have been the unlikeliest of leaders’ (p.391).

Polarisation and historical upheavals

Dorling contends that one of the lessons of history is that similar polarisations to the one we are now witnessing between extreme affluence at one end and extreme privation at the other have often resulted in a traumatic upheaval that re-sets the social order. The title is a reference to his assessment that not since the pre-World-War-One era has this country experienced such a gap between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale. Few in the years preceding 1914 would have thought they were heading for a cataclysm. Dorlingreflects that our generation is on the eve of an event that is hopefully more constructive and less costly in terms of loss of life but no less momentous. Appropriately, he turns to a natural phenomenon to illustrate the nature of this historical conjuncture:

‘As a wave rolls into shore it grows in height…Of course, the wave would not carry on getting higher and higher. How could it when there was nothing left to hold it up? It had already been teetering for some time. Arising wave is like a ticking time bomb’ (p.19).

Having established this radical perspective on contemporary British society, Dorling proceeds to analyse four key aspects of the domestic policy agenda: housing, education, health and demography. Each one of these sections is a collation of articles he has written for various journals over the period of the Cameron-May governments and is filled with valuable political ammunition that socialists can utilise when agitating on these areas. The first of the sections alludes to how one of the most infamous events of recent years was rooted in the UK’s dysfunctional approach to housing policy: ‘The Grenfell disaster was caused by the lack of regard that the rich councillors of Kensington and Chelsea had for their poorer neighbours’ (p. 87).

Housing inequality and social crisis

The seeds of this calamity can be traced back to what Dorling calls an ‘invisible invasion’ that developed during the Thatcherite era. Encouraged by the eponymous PM’s glorification of a low-tax, anti-union and pro-corporate economic culture in the 1980s, the super-rich from around the world were drawn to the capital city as a safe haven for capital accumulation and egregious self-indulgence. This influx of banks, billionaires and oligarchs with their assorted hangers-on pushed up property prices in London, which in turn triggered a wave of rising house prices and rental costs that emanated outwards across the South East of the country.

The City of London morphed in the drag-weight of the national economy, causing investment and productivity in other less financialised sectors and regions to fall behind and, ultimately, slide into decline and degradation. The upshot, in Dorling’s estimation, has been to make the UK capital ‘the most expensive city in the world to live in’ (p.130). Grenfell has come to symbolise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots not just in London but also in the whole country. Notoriously, the speculative housing boom in the private sector originating there a few decades ago has effected a social crisis that now entails the virtual impossibility for young people to acquire a start-up on the property ladder, which previous generations regarded as an essential component of material security.

Grimly familiar social phenomena such as adults living with their parents, houses sub-divided into flats or studios, and rough sleepers sheltering in shop entrances are all manifestations of this short-term dash for property cash that was whipped up by Thatcher and her neoliberal successors from both main parties. Dorling notes that the traditional notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is castle’ has been shredded by this unfolding crisis and that the social fabric associated with the postwar consensus is consequently in decay:

‘the number of people in their late 30s or early 40s who managed to get a mortgage in the past 10 years has been cancelled out by the people of the same age who had to give up buying, who split up and have rented or who left another tenure to become a private renter’ (p.134).

In the section on demographic trends, Dorling addresses the understandable view of many outside London that, thanks to the influx of foreign capital, the city has become an island of affluence in a sea of poverty. In fact, he points out the UK’s most prominent urban area has been hollowed out by the ravages of neoliberalism and consequently most of its residents are struggling to survive: ‘There are far more poor households in London than wealthy households’ (p.187). The Grenfell disaster, in this sense, was a microcosm of a trend that is playing across the capital and, beyond that, across the length and breadth of twenty-first-century Britain.

Notoriously, prior to the conflagration that took over seventy lives, the richer denizens of Kensington and Chelsea had complained to the council about the unsightly nature of the tower block on their doorstep. Nothing could be more symbolic of the self-centred and hubristic mentality fostered among the rich by nearly ten years of Tory rule:

‘London is polarising and the very centre is becoming a place where almost exclusively only the very rich and the very poor live: the people least likely to understand each other, each other’s motives, needs and lives’ (p.192).

Class, profit and education policy

Teachers, parents and children in the education sector have experienced a similar diminution of the quality and quantity of support from the state and a concomitant expansion of the influence of privatised and profit-seeking organisations. Dorling is particularly scathing of the nefarious impact of Michael Gove while presiding over the country’s schools, colleges and universities. He recounts how Gove devised a re-vamped curriculum that has sucked out the imaginative and flexible aspects of learning and replaced them with a stultifying focus on grammar, monitoring and testing.

Instead of seven and eight-year old experiencing the joy of reading a whole book together, they are now subjected to mind-numbing chores such as identifying the use of ‘commas after fronted adverbials’ in short extracts (p.215). Frequent headlines concerning crises of teacher recruitment and morale are the inevitable result of the Gove wrecking-ball:

‘The mantra underlying his time as education secretary was that a few needed help to climb up out of the masses but that the large majority of children should be trained to become obedient, well-disciplined workers, who had learnt their place and did not question it’ (p.209).

Unlike most mainstream education commentators, Dorling is refreshingly unsparing in his condemnation of the ongoing schism between the private and public sectors of the English education system. He rightly compares this feature of our society to the apartheid system, which used to prevail in South Africa, in so far as it is rarely questioned by those at the apex of society and that future generations will be baffled as to why we have tolerated it for so long. The author provides myth-busting evidence that privately educated children are actually even less likely to experience a rounded curriculum than their state-school counterparts.

He is impressively contemptuous of the notion that private schools are in any way superior to the public sector and dismisses the hackneyed argument (usually presented by privately educated politicians) that the latter should aspire to be more like the former. The even greater pressure to teach-to-the-test in fee-paying schools means their pupils ‘more often have the grades but not the ability. In being forced to get the grades, some actually have had their imagination and overall scope to think damaged’ (p.212).

Another aspect of inequality assessed by the author that affects the education sector is the insidious growth of academies that have eroded the educational ethos that used to prevail in the comprehensives pioneered in the 1960s. Not the least absurd element of the government’s promotion of so-called British values in the classroom is that senior school managers are supposed to highlight the importance of democracy while simultaneously ignoring it in the way schools are run!

Dorling notes how many schools have not only been forcibly converted into academies against the wishes of most parents and teachers, but also then handed over to the supervision of ‘unelected and largely unaccountable trustees’ (p.239). Such individuals have not only been caught out siphoning off school funds in a noticeable number of cases; they are also unlikely to send their own children to this type of school and more likely to use their extravagant remuneration to pay private-school fees (p.240). The author also has some attractive suggestions for an overhaul of school management and the creation of a genuinely democratic ethos:

‘the bulk of the governing body should be the staff of the schoolteachers, teaching assistants and someone involved in feeding the children each day-someone who knows what they are talking about when it is suggested that lunchtimes can be squeezed’(p.240).

Austerity and the health service

Regarding the state of the NHS under the Tories, Dorling provides devastating evidence that austerity is seriously bad for your health. Last year researchers announced that the infant mortality rate, one of the key indicators of a developed society, has risen for the second consecutive year. This is the first time such a trend has been apparent since World War Two. As Dorling remarks, it is a searing indictment of the lowering of our threshold for outrage that this regression has not caused more debate in the national media (p.273).

At the other end of the life cycle, the impact of a callous and profit-orientated mentality among political decision-makers is equally shocking. Last winter was unusually mild up to late February and yet, the author calculates:

‘An additional person died every seven minutes during the 49 days of 2018 compared with what had been usual in the previous five years. The reason for this was not the weather or flu’ (p.290).

Jeremy Hunt, then Health Secretary, trotted out the standard Tory lie that most of these fatalities were the consequence of a combination of winter temperatures and new strains of influenza.

Dorling argues persuasively that we should look instead at the sub-standard quality of many private-sector care homes for the elderly, and the slashing of support to council-run dementia services for the real culprits of this annual cull of the population. One of the tragic ironies of these needless deaths is that many of those affected are the generation who voted for Atlee in 1945 in massive numbers with the hope that the UK would become a genuinely equal society. The author concludes that the virus of neoliberalism is the real winter killer in the UK:

‘It is hard to believe that it is not the rising callousness of our age, which in so many ways, is driving growing numbers of elderly people to die earlier than expected’ (p.289).

Prospects for transformation

After finishing Dorling’s coruscating dissection of the crumbling state of the UK’s social fabric, only the most blinkered reader could disagree with his prognosis that the country is on the eve of a serious economic and political upheaval. However, it is possible to disagree with his confidence that such an upheaval will inevitably result in a re-balancing of the equilibrium back towards the interests of the working class.

The author is optimistic the election of a Corbyn government, hopefully in the near future, will begin the process of rectifying the injustices outlined in the book. All socialists will share his hope here, but Dorling underestimates the resistance such a project will encounter from the elite. The evidence he has compiled for the ever-growing concentration of power and wealth at the top points to an unavoidable conclusion, which strangely he does not make, that only coordinated, mass action inside and outside the current structures of political power will be sufficient to reset the balance of class forces. Without conscious and determined leadership from the left, the danger is that Dorling’s wave will lack the necessary momentum to wash away decades of injustice.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters