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Unequal Britain: attitudes to inequality in light of Covid

The need to tackle geographical inequalities is a rare point of agreement among the public

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A major new study on attitudes to different forms of inequality in light of Covid-19 shows that one rare point of agreement among the British public is on the need to tackle geographical inequalities:

  • Britons across the political spectrum care about disparities between deprived and better-off areas, chiming with the government’s focus on “levelling up”.
  • Views on inequalities between different ethnic groups are comparatively more divided.
  • Gender equality comes low on the country’s list of priorities.
  • Britons’ focus on hard work and ambition means they tend to have a relatively unforgiving view of those who have lost their jobs during the crisis.
  • Appetite for change to tackle inequalities is still strongly influenced by people’s pre-existing political beliefs, indicating the pandemic has not shifted views.

Unequal Britain

Read the research

The research was conducted by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, in collaboration with the UK in a Changing Europe, to inform the Institute for Fiscal Studies Deaton Review of Inequalities.

Based on a nationally representative survey of over 2,000 people, the study is the most comprehensive examination to date of attitudes towards different types of inequality in the context of the coronavirus crisis.

Geographical inequalities are an unexpected – and unifying – top source of concern

Perhaps surprisingly given all the other impacts of the pandemic, the one issue on which there is significant agreement that cuts across political lines is place-based inequalities.

  • Inequalities between more and less deprived areas (61%), along with disparities in income and wealth (60%), are seen as the most serious type of inequality in Britain.
  • This indicates the strength of potential support for the government’s “levelling up” agenda – it very much fits with the public’s own priorities, almost regardless of background.
  • Area-based inequalities are the only form of inequality about which Labour (67%) and Conservative voters (59%) have comparably high levels of concern. This concern also cuts across Brexit divides, suggesting that a policy emphasis on such inequalities could be relatively unifying.Among people who expect inequality to rise as a result of the pandemic, 84% anticipate that disparities between more and less deprived areas will increase – the top answer given – again reflecting the high level of concern the public have about this issue.

 

But attitudes towards other forms of inequality, particularly between different ethnic groups, are much more divided

Inequalities between racial or ethnic groups are considered one of the most serious forms of inequality in Britain (45%), after those between more and less deprived areas and disparities in income and wealth – but there is much greater variation in levels of concern between groups.

  • Conservative voters (32%) are around half as likely as Labour voters (62%) to see inequalities between people of different ethnicities as one of the most serious forms of inequality.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the public (63%) say it would be a problem if the gap in incomes between white people and ethnic minorities grew as a result of the coronavirus crisis – but a quarter (23%) say they wouldn’t consider it a problem.
  • Half of Britons (47%) say that discrimination helps explain why black people have lower earnings, but one in eight (13%) think this is a result of black people lacking motivation or willpower. Conservative (21%) and Leave voters (21%) are far more likely than Labour (4%) and Remain voters (6%) to believe this explanation. However, this is much lower than similar data from the US, where a 2018 survey found 36% of people say that a lack of motivation holds black Americans back.

 

And growing gender inequality following Covid-19 is a much lower concern

  • Among people who think inequality will increase as a result of the pandemic, 17% expect disparities between men and women to grow – far fewer than the proportion who expect any other inequalities to worsen. This is despite evidence of adverse labour market consequences for women in Britain resulting from the crisis.
  • And of all the types of inequality between different groups in society, the public are least concerned about income inequality between genders getting worse because of the crisis – a third (32%) actively say they would not consider it a problem if this were to happen.

On top of significant variations in opinion, meritocratic and individualistic tendencies also temper calls for action on inequality

There is a strong belief in meritocracy in Britain – that hard work and ambition remain key drivers of success, and this colours views, even during a pandemic. For example, despite the exceptional circumstances, Britons are more likely to think that job losses caused by the crisis are the result of personal failure than chance.

  • Nearly half – 47% – say that an individual’s performance at work is important in determining whether they lost their job at this time, compared with 31% who say luck is an important factor. By 57% to 39%, Conservative voters are much more likely than Labour voters to attribute these job losses to poor performance at work.

 

All of this means that while there is some appetite for change, it does not reach a level of support that unifies across political and demographic divides

  • 55% of Britons think the crisis means there is more need for the government to take measures to reduce differences in income levels, compared with 15% who disagree – however, there are important differences in opinion between voters for the two main parties, with Conservative voters (41%) far less likely than Labour voters (77%) to agree.
  • But at the same time, the public are relatively divided on whether the government’s support for workers and businesses during the pandemic strengthens the case for more intervention in the economy in the future: 45% believe it does, while 36% believe this kind of intervention should just be a one-off – and attitudes are hugely affected by existing political views and age. For example, two-thirds of Labour Remainers believe the crisis justifies more intervention, compared to only one in five Conservative Leavers.
  • And linking the coronavirus crisis to the case for redistributing income from the better-off to the less well-off appears to have little impact on support. Only 8% of those who disagree with government redistributing income in general go on to agree there is more need for it now in light of the pandemic.

 

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“Our new research shows the coronavirus crisis has not, as yet, unified Britain on the need for radical action on inequality – instead, we remain very divided. But the one very clear exception is on the need to prioritise inequalities between deprived and better-off areas. This is a top concern, and crucially, not just the view from those directly affected: all groups prioritise geographical inequality.

 

“This is rare – it's much more common for our attitudes towards inequality to deeply divide us, given it’s a core aspect of our political identities and values. So while area-based life chances are incredibly difficult to improve in practice, our findings suggest the government’s focus on ‘levelling up’ has the potential to bring people together.”

 

Professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, said:

 

“These findings underline all too clearly the increased importance of place in debates about politics in general and inequality in particular. The government should view this emergent consensus as providing a window of opportunity to act on the ambitious promises it has made to ‘level up’ the country.”

 

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said:

 

“This analysis throws up the complexity of people’s view about inequalities. The British public is clearly concerned about some inequalities, but also sets great store by individual responsibility. These insights are a vital input into the IFS Deaton review of inequalities, which will be looking at the root causes of inequalities and the extent to which they result from processes which are ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’. Consonant with this evidence on people’s attitudes, we are looking at geographical inequalities and inequalities in income and wealth. Perhaps the more divided views over gender and ethnicity reflect the fact that while those inequalities remain substantial, they have at least been falling in recent decades.”

Technical details
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,226 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11 and 12 November 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

 

This report will feed into the flagship Institute for Fiscal Studies Deaton Review of Inequalities in the 21st century. Launched in 2019, this is an ambitious five-year project, initiated by IFS and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. With the Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Angus Deaton in the chair, the panel overseeing the project includes world-leading experts in sociology, demography, epidemiology, political science, philosophy and economics. www.ifs.org.uk/inequality