Posted by Paul Wetherly, Reader in Politics at Leeds Beckett University
It was a pleasure to welcome Professor Danny Dorling to the University to deliver this year’s Annual Politics Lecture on A Better Politics, the subject of his most recent and highly acclaimed book. Danny presented the lecture to a large and very appreciative audience in the Rose Bowl.
In the book, Danny sets out a conception of a better politics as ‘one that will enable future generations to be happier’, based on evidence of what matters most in affecting people’s happiness. He argues that ‘there are many policies that we could adopt if we really want to be collectively happier and healthier. We could have a government that makes our lives happier, if we win the argument for it.’
In the lecture, from the wealth of analysis in the book Danny distilled the key finding that poor health is the most important factor in determining happiness. In other words the experience ill-health – your own or that of people who are close to you – and deaths of people who are close are the most important things that happen to people that adversely affect their happiness. Therefore among the many policies that could be adopted to enable us to be collectively happier, especially important are those concerning health and social care.
This insight about the importance of health was used in the lecture to help to understand the vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. Danny argued that health indicators at county level (obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, physical exercise and life expectancy) provided the best correlation with the change in the Republican margin over the Democrats in the US election. Similarly, the antecedents of Brexit can be found in ‘the rapid decline in living standards after 2010, failing health and rapidly rising mortality due to austerity’. Basically, people voted Leave on the basis of their experience of things getting worse, and this deterioration is captured in measures of poor health and mortality.
These events were largely unpredicted, and Danny cautioned against making forecasts or predictions of political events given the inherent uncertainties. Nevertheless, looking ahead to the Presidential election in France, he said that he is ‘hopeful’ that this will not produce a victory for the Front National (with the likely consequence of a vote on ‘Frexit’) basically because France is different from the UK and US – specifically, it is less unequal and has better public services. Among a wealth of data charting the harmful consequences of inequality for societies, Danny showed a correlation between inequality (measured by the take of the top 1%) and voting for far Right parties.
Inequality is a political choice, and it is possible to make political choices that reduce inequality and increase happiness. Danny put forward a set of policy priorities and choices that could take us in this direction: taxing and spending on public services at a ‘normal European level’, reform of the housing market to protect tenants, working towards a universal basic income, abolishing benefit sanctions, student loans, electoral reform (PR), and reducing the income and wealth of the top 1%.
Looking ahead, but without making predictions, Danny remains optimistic. Things have got better in the past (eg after Suez) and when you are the most unequal country in Europe things can only get better.
The Annual Politics Lecture is organised by the Politics & International Relations Group, School of Social Sciences
A Better Politics: How Government Can Make Us Happier (London Publishing Partnership, 2016) by Danny Dorling is available to download here or, of course, in paperback in bookshops.
Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography and Fellow of St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. He was previously a professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield. He has also worked in Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds and New Zealand, went to university in Newcastle upon Tyne, and to school in Oxford. In 2015 he was a commissioner of the London Fairness Commission, which reported in 2016. Danny’s many books (some co-authored) include Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists (Policy Press, 2015), Inequality and the 1% (Verso, 2014), The Social Atlas of Europe (with D. Ballas and B. D. Hennig; Policy Press, 2014), All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster (Allen Lane, 2015), Population 10 Billion (Constable, 2013), So You Think You Know About Britain? (Constable, 2011), The Visualization of Social Spatial Structure (Wiley, 2012), Geography (with C. Lee; Profile, 2016) and People and Places: A 21st-Century Atlas of the UK (with B. Thomas; Policy Press, 2016).