Danny Dorling, Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of A Failing State (Verso 2023), 288pp. Danny Dorling, Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of A Failing State (Verso 2023), 288pp.

Danny Dorling’s new book, Shattered Nation, contains a wealth of data on the impact of inequality on British society over the last fifty years, finds Graham Kirkwood

Britain is a failing state. That is the message in a new book by Danny Dorling, which builds a grim picture of the deterioration of life for millions in the UK since the late 1970s. The UK has become more and more unequal with a consequent deterioration in outcomes for its poorest citizens.

Dorling holds the prestigious position of the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and is one of the best know social and political geographers in the UK, appearing regularly in mainstream media.

In the book, he assembles a wealth of evidence to show how the current trajectory in the UK is one of increasing inequality. The gap in life expectancy within the UK is now greater than that between the UK and Sudan (p.164). ‘The UK became one of the most unequal states in Europe during the 1980s, after having been one of the most equal in the early 1970s.’ How did this happen? Why have we seen the return of diseases such as rickets, TB and polio in one of the world’s most developed economies?

While chairing the war-time government’s committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, William Beveridge identified five great evils to be tackled by the establishment of the post-World-War-Two welfare state: Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease. Dorling updates these as Hunger, Precarity, Waste, Exploitation and Fear afflicting British society today.

Hunger, Precarity and Waste

The Trussel Trust opened its first food bank in the UK in 2000. There are now almost twice as many food banks in the UK as there are McDonalds (p.53). Where has this need on such a scale come from?

Dorling details several key changes in the welfare state which have driven people into poverty in the UK including; ‘instead of a welfare system, it has become a system of minimum pay-outs and frequent penalties (in the form of sanctions).’ Another example of the deliberate changes made was in 2015 when George Osborne removed universal child benefit including any benefit for a family’s third or subsequent child (p.78).

A major source of precarity for people is housing. Margaret Thatcher brought in the largest privatisation in British history by selling off council housing under the ‘right to buy’ scheme with the intention of reducing the social rented sector. House prices have skyrocketed. Had house prices increased in line with inflation since the 1950s, the average house would now cost around £63,000 (p.85) rather than £290,000 according to the Office for National Statistics. Consequently, rents have been driven up and up, contributing to financial precarity.

Other countries do things quite differently. Germany, for example, has controlled rents for decades, and tenants who pay the rent cannot be evicted. In Sweden, private-sector rents are set by national-level negotiation rather than individual bargaining, and in the Netherlands, housing quality is ensured by government inspectors (p.109).

Work has also changed in the UK away from manufacturing to a financial and service economy with huge numbers of people now employed in sales, marketing, finance and accounting, but what do they actually produce that is of worth to society? Despite politicians talking of increasing productivity, they have moved the economy to one where much of it does not produce much of any use to the population. For example, there were around 365,000 people employed in manufacturing clothing in the UK in 1979, but only 26,000 by 1999. Over the same time period, the number of estate agents doubled between 1979 and 1999 and doubled again between 1999 and 2019. There are now 21 people working in real estate for every clothing manufacturing worker (p.117). In general, the more a job involves helping others, the less it is likely to pay (p.111).

Exploitation and Fear

While Scotland’s higher-education system remains free at the point of use, England’s has shifted to one which exploits students (p.139). England has the highest university tuition fees in the world, a third higher than even the US (p.139). For overseas students, the situation is even more exploitative. The University of Manchester charges overseas undergraduates £32,900 and postgraduates as much as £46,000 a year (pp.142-3).

The number of premature deaths in the UK attributed to austerity, between 2012 and 2019, sits at 335,000 (p.163). In 1950, only six countries in the world had better life expectancy than the UK. By the late 1970s, the UK was twenty-first, a position it held until 2015, then, as a result of austerity, it dropped to 37th by 2021 (p.167). By 2021, the UK was below all of the rest of Western Europe.

From being almost first in the world for child health measured by neonatal mortality in the 1960s, the UK dropped to seventh in Europe by 1990, nineteenth by 2015 and 23rd by 2020. The only countries worse than the UK were Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Malta (p.168).

Corbyn and Brexit

Politically, there are two interrelated issues relevant to current political debates, which run through the book. First, the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement around him, following the 2019 general-election result has had a huge impact on the confidence of vast numbers who align themselves on the left of British politics. The second is Brexit and its relation to the defeat in 2019.

There has been a massive drop in Labour party membership since Keir Starmer took over. Labour membership was 395,811 in June 2023, down 30% from a peak of 564,443 during Corbyn’s time as leader. Given that some 50,000 have joined in a year, over 200,000 people who generally associated themselves with the progressive policies put forward in 2017 now have no political home.

2017 and 2019

The 2017 election was a polarised affair with 82% of votes taken by Labour and Tories between them, the highest two-party share since 1970. It was also an election of hope for Labour voters. Polls estimate almost three quarters of 18–24-year-old women voted Labour in 2017, a 30% increase on 2015. Turnout was 68.8%, the highest since 1997 and 9.4% up on the cotemporary low of 2001. The election in England was quite different from that in Scotland.


1997200120052010201520172019
Turnout71.4%59.4%61.4%65.1%66.2%68.8%67.3%
LABOUR
Votes (000s)13,51810,7259,5528,6079,34712,87810,269
Percentage of UK Vote43.2%40.7%35.2%29.0%30.4%40.0%32.1%
CONSERVATIVE
Votes (000s)9,6018,3588,78510,70411,30013,63713,966
Percentage of UK Vote30.7%31.7%32.4%36.1%36.8%42.3%43.6%

Labour won 262 seats and 40.0% of the vote, almost 10% higher than in 2015. Labour gained thirty seats overall, winning 28 directly from the Tories. Despite the conservatives taking 43.2% of the vote, the highest share by any single party since 1997, they lost thirteen seats overall.

The vote secured by UKIP in 2015 went to both the Tories and Labour in 2017. UKIP stood in 317 seats in 2017 down from 624 in 2015. In many seats such as Walsall North, which Labour lost, and Blythe Valley which Labour would lose in 2019, the 2015 UKIP vote (22% and 18% respectively) went mostly to the Tories. In 2017, the Conservative vote went up 15.8% and 15.2% respectively, while Labours vote increased 3.8% and 9.6%. The Conservative vote increased the most in the North East of England, while Labour’s increased the most in the South and East of England.

The 2019 election was quite different, but first it is important to note that the decline in Labour’s share of the vote began in 2001, Blair’s first re-election, and continued to 2010 when they won only 29% of the vote under Gordon Brown. The decline stopped under Miliband in 2015, but it was Corbyn’s result in 2017 that saw the share of the vote go up from 30.4% to 40.0%.

In December 2019, Britain went to the polls again after Boris Johnson called a snap election over Brexit. Labour lost sixty seats and the Tories gained 48 with 43.6% of the vote. Labour took only 32.1% of votes this time. The election was less polarised, with Labour and the Tories taking 76% of votes between them, although the Brexit party, a newcomer taking over from UKIP, polled 644,257 votes (2%). In some areas of the North of England, for example Barnsley Central, Barnsley East and Hartlepool they polled over 25% of the votes cast. The Brexit party fielded candidates in 275 constituencies, not standing in any of the 317 seats won by the Tories in 2017, in return for a commitment from Boris Johnson that Britain would leave the EU by 2020; they had previously topped the European Parliament election earlier in 2019 with 32% of the vote, Labour coming third.

Brexit

How did this disaster in 2019 happen? In 2017, Labour’s manifesto stated that it respected the outcome of the EU referendum. In 2019, there were large street demonstrations and petitions calling for a ‘people’s vote’ which, following poor European Election results, led to the adoption of a second Brexit referendum as a policy at the party conference in September 2019. Key to this movement was Keir Starmer, then home secretary, now Labour leader. Starmer has now, of course, ditched the policy.

Dorling’s explanations for the defeat in 2019 are partial in that they don’t acknowledge fully the role of Labour’s shift on its position over Brexit. ‘Labour lost the 2019 election so badly because (net) 1.2 million people who had voted for the party in 2017 chose not to vote in 2019. It was a simple as that.’ He goes on to say that this phenomenon was particularly acute in marginal seats making the outcome ‘more devastating’ (p.43). ‘It was because enough poorer people in those areas were persuaded not to vote at all in 2019’ (p.45) with ‘Labour supporters choosing not to vote, rather than changing their allegiance’ (p.40). The media played a key role, removing their grudging support for Labour after it had moved to a ten-point poll lead in May 2019.

There is also the issue of shifting geography in relation to social class. Many cities in the UK now have a ‘large core of poverty, surrounded by an increasingly narrow fringe of affluence’ (p.112). One of Labour’s problems is that, in some parts of the country, its vote is concentrated in particular seats, consequently holding 34 out of 35 of the largest majorities in the UK (the other being Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland). In other seats, demographic change over a number of years from the building of new private estates in northern constituencies, combined with very low turnout among the poorest voters in these seats, swung the balance in favour of the Tories.

The effect of Brexit can’t be dismissed so easily though. In the Northeast of England, the Brexit party secured 8.1% of the vote, the highest in the UK. Of the 58 seats that switched to Conservative, 55 were in constituencies which voted leave in 2016. Among voters who voted Conservative, Brexit was the top reason, but didn’t feature in the top three reasons for voting Labour. Turnout was also down, by 2% at 67%, but lowest in the North East (64.2%). Polls estimate 74% of leave voters voted Conservative in 2019, up 9% from 2017. Labour lost 48% of leave voters who had supported Labour in 2017.

Conclusion

In this book, Danny Dorling has created a resource for all those involved in movements in the UK striving for social justice and for an end to hunger, precarity, waste, exploitation and fear. The evidence he assembles makes it clear how far we have travelled down the road of increasing inequality to such devastating effect. Labour’s tenure in government between 1997 and 2010 did little to address these trends, which are driven by structural changes.

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader showed that an alternative is possible, only to be shipwrecked on the rocks of Brexit. If, as we all hope, the Tories are thrown out at the election this year, it seems likely the time will come quickly when disillusion sets in, given that Starmer’s Labour offers nothing for the mass of the British population. An alternative to Labour’s sell-out is a desperate necessity for millions.

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