We need to change the narrative on inequality

Damon Boughen, Rachael Orr

Earlier this year, Oxfam research found that the five richest families in the UK are wealthier than the poorest 20 per cent of the population combined. That means that just a handful of families hold more wealth than 12.5 million people.

More working households are living in poverty in the UK than non-working ones with some 13 million people currently classed as living below the poverty line (those falling below 60 per cent of national median income). Since 2003, the majority of British people have seen a 12 percent real terms drop in their disposable income, while the richest 5 percent keep getting richer, with their disposable income increasing by more than £461 a week.

Many must make the difficult choice between heating their home and going hungry in order to feed their children. This glaring inequality is making a mockery of the hopes and ambitions of millions of people across the country, and is eroding their ability to influence decision-making.

While these facts show just how much economic inequality has spiralled out of control, the issue is too often framed as a polarising political issue rather as than something that all parties must tackle together. Arguments that dismiss calls for equality as naively idealistic, or as part of an anti-business/anti-growth agenda are not only limited, but they demonstrate that little will change until we change the dialogue around inequality and realise how much it affects us all.

As well as changing the narrative, it is imperative that we confront power imbalances and fight for progressive policies. It is around these goals that Oxfam launched our major global report and campaign to even the gap between ‘the rich and the rest’, and why we were so pleased to have had the opportunity to speak at the Fabian Society event ‘Fighting Inequality: Poverty, the middle and the one per cent’ at this year’s Labour party conference.

Power imbalances

The influence and interests of economic and political elites have long reinforced inequality across the world – money buys political clout; access to justice is often for sale; and elites use their heightened political influence to curry government favours while blocking policies that would benefit the majority.

This theme has intertwined itself throughout Oxfam’s research papers, including Our Economy: Towards a New Prosperity and A Tale of Two Britains, with many interviewees reporting they felt those with the most money are able to rig the rules and influence government policy in their favour – often at the expense of everyone else. If we want to tackle inequality we must also tackle power imbalances – everyone must be able to influence the decisions that affect their lives. This is why Oxfam works to increase access for people whose voices are too often unheard in the corridors of power.

Policy changes

While some inequality is inevitable, the extreme levels of inequality that we are now seeing across the world are harmful socially, economically and politically. Even organisations such as the International Monetary Fund have found that extreme income inequality undermines both the pace and sustainability of economic growth, and finds that redistribution efforts – including progressive taxation and spending on health and education – are pro-growth.

We stand at a point where real, concentrated action from all political parties could still reverse the trend of rapidly rising inequality. Governments can start by opposing the special interests of powerful elites, moving away from the economic doctrines that have allowed the inequality explosion of the past 30 years, and levelling the playing field by implementing progressive policies on areas such as taxation, wages and public services. In the UK, a good place to start would be to crack down on tax dodging by UK companies, here and in developing countries, thus bringing in money that can be spent on essential public services and poverty reduction programmes. On the global stage, the UK government should also support a goal to end extreme economic inequality in every country.

Ending extreme inequality

Today’s extremes of inequality are bad for everyone. For the poorest people in society, the opportunity to emerge from poverty and live a dignified life is fundamentally blocked by extreme inequality. Governments have a responsibility to tackle extreme inequality and they must help to change the narrative, address the factors that have led to today’s inequality explosion, and implement policies that benefit the majority, and not just a powerful and wealthy minority. It is time for us to demand a more equal world before we are tipped irrevocably into a world that caters to the privileged and forces millions of people into poverty.


  1. Russell Boncey

    Agreed. Our collective script should read something like this :
    “we all need to stand together, no matter who we feel ourselves to be, no matter where we come from, in order to face our collective ennemies : poverty, insecurity, exclusion, and xenophobia”.

  2. Peter Gawthrop

    Changing the narrative on inequality.
    The damaging effects of inequality have now been widely documented and are acknowledged by right and left wing politicians, religious leaders, academics and many others. They pay lip service to the idea that extreme inequality should be reduced but they are so distracted by other apparently more pressing priorities that they don’t do anything positive about it. They need to be pressured and motivated into taking effective and sustained action about inequality and the related problems of poverty which pose a tangible threat to future social and economic stability.
    The Fabian Society, Oxfam and many other concerned groups and individuals recognise the importance of all this. They must get together to mount a strong co-ordinated campaign to ensure that politicians, commercial interests and the wider public are fully aware of the link between inequality and poverty, with the emphasis on the pragmatic advantages of poverty reduction as well as humanitarian concerns. It is time for a realistic anti-poverty alliance rather than idealistic claims for greater equality.

  3. Paolo Sanviti

    Good society – no violence, respectable job – rights and laws in society. To build good lives and lifestyle for better future.

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