The further you are from London, the more equal the cities are

What is inequality on an urban level?

The Work Foundation has produced a new report looking into inequality in British cities. It's a tricky subject to deal with, because urban inequality is very different in character from inequality on a national, or international, scale: for instance, the report finds that within an unequal city, people are far more concerned about "spatial inequality" – the existence of neighbourhoods with high levels of poverty – rather than what might be considered more robust measures, like wage or wealth inequality.

But there's one thing which isn't complex at all: the pattern of inequality. This graph is probably my favourite in the whole report:

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What you're seeing there is a near perfect correlation between distance from London by train, and inequality. The further away you are from the capital, the more equal your city is. Except for Scotland. Edinburgh and Glasgow each have sizeable inequality themselves, and Aberdeen – over eight hours away from London by train – has the quirks of being an oil town completely wrecking the relationship.

But there's an intermediate cause at work. It's not – obviously – that being further away from London makes your city more unequal. It is, rather, that the driver of urban inequality appears to be wealth. The most equal cities are those which are smaller, have lower average wages and are coming out of the end of years of industrial decline; the report gives Burnley and Sunderland as examples.

Not only is there the fairly strong correlation between wealth and southernness, there's also the fact that a rich city in the north is more likely to be connected to London by a direct, fast train – which increases the strength of the above correlation.

The report's authors point out that this has interesting implications for tackling urban inequality. Most policy assumes that you want to make Sunderland more like London, not the other way round. And if the trick to reducing inequality is to lower average wages and deskill the economy, then that's not particularly helpful advice.

But the really interesting question is whether you want to reduce urban inequality. The "Spirit Level" argument – that high inequality causes a number of bad outcomes – has only been shown to apply on the national level. Is there anything bad about inequality in cities on its own terms?

The end result is that cities with problems with inequality would be better served focusing on the bottom end. On the national stage, where a redistributive tax system exists and where the intrinsic problems of inequality are known, it makes sense to take from the rich and give to the poor, but on the local level that's less clear. Strategies like the living wage, reducing the cost of living, and supporting low-skilled workers who want to develop their abilities are more likely to work on an urban level – and even if they don't directly reduce inequality, they're hardly bad things to have anyway.

Of course, given the standard of some politician's use of data, it's just as likely that the message drawn from this report will be "if you destroy train lines, inequality will fall". Which would be less than ideal.

Sunderland, the most equal city in Britain, in 1880. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.