‘Build back better’ became a mantra of the first half of 2020 as the Covid-19 crisis changed so many aspects of daily life.
Whether ditching the morning commute, normalising flexible working or finding ways to show the value of key workers, there was a sense that our lives had irreversibly changed and that this could be the start of better ways of working and living.
Almost 12 months on from the start of the first national lockdown in the UK, it is much less clear that the on-going crisis has led to an appetite for radical social renewal.
That the pandemic has laid bare a pattern of inequality in our societies is clear. Research has highlighted the much higher death rates in the most deprived areas of England, the disproportionate risk of serious infection among black and minority ethnic groups, the impact of increased childcare burdens on parents (particularly women) and a new divide between those able to work from home and those who cannot.
What has been the impact of this on attitudes to inequality? In a report published last week, The Policy Institute and UK in a Changing Europe look at public perceptions of the extent and causes of inequality, how these vary across political groups and the impact of Covid-19.
The findings will be a disappointment to those who saw the pandemic as a catalyst for radical change and brings with it a whispered warning for both main party leaders.
For Boris Johnson, the findings make clear that there is a danger in failing to deliver on the promises of ‘levelling up’; while for Keir Starmer the danger lies in placing all bets on a desire to move forward differently, ‘no return to business as usual’, when many people are keen to have some normality back in their lives.
What are perceived as the most serious sources of inequality in Britain? When asked to choose three or four types of inequality as the most serious, we found three layers of concern.
Economic inequalities, between more and less deprived areas in the UK and in income and wealth were each chosen by three-fifths of the respondents. Behind these were inequalities between racial or ethnic groups and educational outcomes for children, each chosen by two-fifths. Inequalities between men and women, relating to health and life expectancy and across generations were each chosen by less than three in ten.
These perceived inequalities also vary in how divisive they are. Differences between areas and in income and wealth were the two most chosen by both Labour and Conservative voters, perhaps an indication of why the ‘levelling up’ agenda of the Conservative Government resonates within the wider public.
While inequality between racial or ethnic groups was almost as commonly chosen as inequality between areas among Labour voters, it was chosen by less than a third of Conservative voters as one of the most serious types of inequality in Britain.
Despite these differences between party support, there is widespread agreement among different social groups about which inequalities are the most serious.
While the overall levels of concern vary, there was some consistency in which inequalities were the perceived as the most serious: all social grades, age groups, and regions place inequality between areas and differences in income and wealth as the two most serious.
That economic inequality is seen as serious is clear, and a reminder for both sides of the culture war that the material matters.
Given the widespread belief that economic inequality (in terms of differences between rich and deprived areas and differences in income and wealth) in Britain is a serious problem, we might expect to also find a desire for change.
Whether or not the Government should redistribute incomes has been a key dividing line between Conservative and Labour voters. While the 2019 election saw the Conservatives successfully pick up more of those voters who wished to see income redistribution, this divide was still evident.
More than 70% of Labours voters agreed that the Government should redistribute income, while this was only 26% among Conservative voters. When asked directly whether the coronavirus had increased the need for redistribution, this followed much the same pattern.
On this key dividing line between voters the crisis may be serving to reinforce existing divisions rather than building a new consensus for change, meaning that understanding the pre-existing patterns of attitudes to inequality is particularly important.
What does this mean for the party leaders as they begin to turn their attention to a return to ‘normal’ politics? In 2019, the Labour party struggled because it could not unite the voters broadly on the ‘left’ who were in favour of redistribution because those voters were also critically divided on other issues (most notably Brexit).
A renewed focus on economic divides may increase the salience of this dimension in the future. Conversely, the Conservative party were able to reach across this economic divide and as a result now need to hold together a coalition of voters who differ on these key issues.
If economic inequality is pushed to the fore of public concern during the economic recovery from Covid-19, it will be much harder for the Conservatives to keep all parts of its electoral coalition together.
By Paula Surridge, deputy director, UK in a Changing Europe. Read the full report ‘Unequal Britain: attitudes to inequalities after Covid-19’ here.