books equality

Book review: Peak Inequality, by Danny Dorling

Danny Dorling is an Oxford professor of geography. His particular expertise was originally in mapping, and his interest in inequality grew out of his work on social maps of Britain. He’s now a prolific commentator on housing, health, and inequality, and this book gathers together essays and articles from 2013 to 2018.

And I mean prolific. The collection here spans a diverse range of publications: the New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the British Medical Journal and even the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily among them. I’m not sure how he had time for any of this considering he seems to have written about ten books in that five years.

There are all sorts of topics here too. Chapters cover politics, housing, education and health, but it dips into demographics, arts funding, land value taxes, race, democracy, speed limits and even children’s books. The book is full of charts, maps and graphs, many of them in colour, and there are lots of unusual visual representations. I got the impression of a curious and creative mind at work.

The ‘peak inequality’ theme is an interesting one, and was the main reason that I picked up the book. Dorling argues that Britain has now had 40 years of rising inequality, leaving us a much more divided country than most of mainland Europe. Division has become normal, which blunts our political imagination. However, “there is always a peak, and it is always eventually reached, surpassed and overcome.” Dorling suggests that there will be a pendulum swing back the other way.

The book argues that when inequality goes too far, nobody really benefits any more. Schooling becomes segregated, healthcare deteriorates, housing becomes unaffordable. Even those who think they benefit from inequality may eventually come to realise that the price is too high, and the risk too great. “Inequalities harm the rich as well as the poor.”

I found Peak Inequality to be hopeful and imaginative, sometimes polemical, and full of engaging facts. If you’ve been labouring under the impression that The Spirit Level is the beginning and end of the debate on inequality, this will be a useful corrective. As it’s a collection, you can pick and choose the topics that interest you, though I read it cover to cover. And again as you’d expect from a compendium, some are stronger than others.

For me, the biggest mis-step is an article called ‘Why Corbyn’s moral clarity could propel him to Number 10’. Published in early 2016, it praises Jeremy Corbyn as a “listening man” who’s good at making alliances. Subsequent events have, in my opinion, repeatedly proved him to be defiantly tribal in his politics. As that’s the final essay, it ends the book on a bit of a bum note. Those with a more positive view of Corbyn may disagree, and as evidenced by the diverse list of original publishers, the overall collection is much more bipartisan than its final word.


    1. Sure. I like a lot of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for, and there are some good and progressive ideas to be found in the Labour party. The problem that I have is that Corbyn is firmly of the view that majority rule by a socialist Labour party is the answer. I take the view that no single party has the answers, and that a greater diversity of views is healthier. The issues we face as a society today need cooperation, adult debate, compromise and cross-party working. If a politician isn’t supporting substantial electoral and parliamentary reform, then they haven’t understood the needs of British democracy in the 21st century.

      When Corbyn first started in the job, I thought we might get a fresh approach to politics. That hasn’t been the case. The whole Brexit process has shown how little room there is for compromise and consensus building. There’s also an unpleasant and aggressive tone that has emerged at the grassroots level, and Corbyn hasn’t got a handle on that.

      Basically, I’m not interested in any politician of any stripe who still maintains that they and their party are the answer. We need politicians who recognise the complexity of the times and seek to find cooperative ways forward.

      1. Jeremy do you really think you would get that at this early stage? As I see it elites will go kicking and screaming to any policies that cut into their wealth and power. Maybe once you have climate refugees banging on the doors while crops fail and other natural disasters take their toll maybe you might get unity governments and even then it could be green fascist ones where it will be looking after nation states and bugger everyone else.

        “There’s also an unpleasant and aggressive tone that has emerged at the grassroots level, and Corbyn hasn’t got a handle on that. ”

        Could you flesh that out as well?

        1. It’s not an early stage though – we’ve known for decades that democracy in Britain is held back by our outdated parliamentary processes and first past the post voting system. Labour promised reform in 1997 and then never delivered. It isn’t about the wealthy elites resisting power here, so much as the two main political parties denying that there’s a problem with a system that suits them very well. There was no mention of political reform in the Labour manifesto, so it doesn’t appear to be on the radar under Corbyn.

          On Brexit, Teresa May has been stubbornly against the idea of cross party working, but then Corbyn refused to meet her for one to one talks when invited. Later he walked out of cross party talks when he found out the Independent Group were there too. And his default line is not to offer dialogue and compromise, but to demand a general election and have a go at Brexit himself, which doesn’t seem like a helpful approach to me. We have to do better than that.

          As for bullying, the big issue is Momentum, the grassroots movement that supports Corbyn. It’s independent of the Labour party, but seeks to move it to the left. There have been concerted efforts to undermine centrists within the party, varying from online trolling to votes of no confidence in local chapters. My own MP in Luton has had a campaign against him for a couple of years, eventually forcing him out of the party and he’s now with the Independent Group. Labour has been a broad church in the past, but Momentum has been strategically reshaping the party around its goals. Since it supports him and his socialist leanings, Corbyn has been happy to let this run its course.

          1. Jeremy, I don’t enough about your local politics to know in any depth but I do wonder given that Labour was a Neoliberal party since Blair, what you would expect from Corbyn or Momentum? Especially given how they attacked him and others with antisemitic slurs. In many ways, it looks similar to what is happening with the Corporate Democrats and the Progressive wing with a corrupt or stale establishment happy with the status quo and foreign interventions as opposed to a grassroots Left who wants neither. I bet you don’t think much of the Canary but it would be interesting to see you face off against one of its journalists.

  1. There’s no question that Corbyn has been treated terribly by the media and by some in the party, and I can see how Momentum wants to fight back against aggressive right wing accusations. The problem is the ‘us and them’ tone. The default view is that they and only they should be in power. Those leaving the party are traitors, all other parties are routinely insulted, and anyone who disagrees with them is declared ‘Blairite’ and dismissed. For all its energy, its quite an ugly movement.

    The key thing for me is that the issues we face in the 21st century are complex. Making sure our particular tribe wins is not appropriate politics for this complexity. A Labour government under Corbyn would be far from the disaster the press make it out to be, but I don’t think it would fix the long term decline in British democracy.

    Jeremy Corbyn, I should add, is on the long list of people and things I’d very much like to be wrong about.

    1. Again yes that approach is needed but as has been said, “We have only two modes—complacency and panic.” so I just don’t see that happening at this stage. The other troubling part is then you have the Green growth people vs the Green degrowth which isn’t even on the horizon. & I wouldn’t be so sure about Corbyn and democracy, many of his policies are rooted in community and grassroots thinking and I wish we had more of that thinking here in Australia. If nothing else it is a foot in the door for more of the things I guess you would like seen done.

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