Bookmark and ShareEilís Lawlor is the acting head of the Valuing What Matters team at nef.

The Marmot report has made it clear – for better social wellbeing we must eradicate disparities in education, income and health.

Successive reviews and reports have consistently told us two things: that we live in an increasingly polarised society and that this is damaging to our social wellbeing. The latest – yesterday’s Marmot review – supports a widely held view that inequalities of health, education, income and opportunity are all inter-related, and that better education leads to longer, healthier lives, and educational attainment itself is affected by income inequality.

Sir Michael Marmot was commissioned to review health inequalities but his recommendations range from investments in early years to an increase in the minimum wage. This comes hot on the heels of the National Equality Panel report on income inequality and the launch of policy positions by all three political parties on the issue. Inequality is no longer an embarrassing legacy of old Labour; instead, all three parties are now falling over themselves to profess their concern. This raises an intriguing question: after decades of tolerating the rise and maintenance of high inequalities, do we now face the prospect of an election fought around the issue?

Social problems are often economic in their origin, and reforming the system itself is the most powerful policy tool that we have at our disposal. A truly preventative approach starts with the structures and institutions that shape our lives: the destabilising income inequalities, the spatial concentrations of unemployment and poverty, the focus on growth as a proxy for social welfare to the neglect of other outcomes.

Late last year we at the new economics foundation produced a report that looked at the economic case for investing in early years. We calculated that by 2030 savings of about £400bn could be made in return for big investments now in universal childcare, extended parental leave and an holistic suite of preventative services. The response from policy-makers and commentators was that it was “too ambitious”. It is a sobering thought that it is too ambitious for one of the world’s biggest economies to aim for outcomes for children similar to its less well off European neighbours.

Inequality is not inevitable. But in the absence of countervailing forces trends such as globalisation, changing demographics and family structure will increase it. Yet, other countries manage to counteract these forces, whether it’s childcare in Sweden, education in the Netherlands, or land redistribution in South Korea. Labour has of course tried (a bit), and it has identified many of the right points of intervention. The problem is that it either didn’t go far enough (not indexing the minimum wage to incomes) or it left key drivers untouched (industrial policy).

Tackling inequality, at least in the public imagination, is overly synonymous with redistribution through the tax and benefit system. Discussion of the forces that influence different wages is notably absent, which might suggest that people think that the pre-tax distribution of incomes is broadly speaking “fair”. But the fact that a senior banker can earn 4,400 times what a nursery worker earns is not fair and is not an accident. It is in opening up this debate and in helping to highlight the determinants of inequality that the Marmot report is so welcome. The research is in, the arguments have been won, now it is time to act on them.

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