Polarisation leads to savage debate

Robert Wade, a professor at the London School of Economics, has recently highlighted what appears to be a link between levels of political intolerance and income distribution.

Polarisation: Anthony Hilton
Polarisation: Anthony Hilton

The more unequal societies are in terms of income, the more polarised their politics seems to be. It seems that the more people have, the more ruthless they become in fighting to hold on to it; at the other end of the spectrum, those with relatively little feel alienated from a system which appears to offer them nothing.

This helps explain the polarisation of politics in the US, where President Obama is finding it almost impossible to govern in the face of unrelenting opposition from republicans. Using votes in Congress as a proxy for political division, Wade finds that not since the 1920s has there been such division, or such a gulf in incomes.

Now if the campaigns before the referendum on changing parliamentary elections from first past the post to an alternative vote system have been remarkable for anything, it is the ruthlessness of the 'No to AV' campaign. It appears that a similar polarisation is happening here at a time when it has become apparent to all that the incomes of bankers, hedge fund managers and business executives have lost all touch with the reality of the world around them.

People were poorer in the 1970s, but high rates of tax meant there was much less of a gulf in incomes. There are perhaps not that many around now who remember the referendum on membership of what was then called the Common Market, now the European Union, back in 1975, but the contrast is marked. That debate split political parties but it was adult, civilised and fair.

Whatever the result of the referendum, what has come through in the campaign is how hard it is to build momentum for change in the face of entrenched interests. The PR campaign for AV failed to take off in spite of heroic efforts by Roland Rudd of Finsbury because those who wanted change, though probably the majority, did not care enough to fight for it. The antis in contrast clearly did care. That is why, though fewer in number, they won the PR battle, if not the war.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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