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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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