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Life is short – if you’re poor in Manchester

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
New Labour policies have seen health inequality grow. Danny Dorling explains how the gaps have emerged, and how we can close them
Issue 2117
Illustration by Eric Drooker/»
Illustration by Eric Drooker/»

‘There can be no more chilling form of inequality than someone’s social status at birth determining the timing of their death,” said the health secretary Alan Johnson in a speech on 12 September last year.

He added that “a man living in Manchester is likely to die almost nine years before a man living in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea”.

If anything Johnson’s figures understated the extent of health inequalities. In November 2006 the Office for National Statistics reported that the life expectancy gap between these two extreme districts of England had grown to 9.7 years.

The widest gap for men was between Glasgow and Kensington & Chelsea – a record high of 12.3 years.

The problem is not just the size of health gap, but the rapid rate at which it was and still appears to be growing. And those rising inequalities in health reflect our growing inequalities in wealth.

In Kensington & Chelsea life expectancy has recently been rising by one year every year for both men and women. At the same time house prices in the Royal Borough entered orbit.

We are now entering a situation where the rise in inequalities has accelerated during the tenth year of a Labour government – and possibly into the eleventh.

The Labour Party needs to ask itself why this has happened.

Was it really because of some social time bomb set during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership that is still having an impact today? Is there really some kind of structural problem with our economy that prevents us from achieving the lower rates of poverty found in the majority of developed nations?

Or maybe – just maybe – government policies to date on these issues have made the problem worse. Maybe these policy positions need to be reversed if we are to prevent unnecessary deaths in the poorest areas of Britain.

Maybe New Labour can no longer afford to be “seriously relaxed” (in former minister Peter Mandelson’s infamous phrase) about growing wealth inequalities because their implications in terms of health are so chilling.

The irony is that those whose life expectancies and bank balances have been growing the fastest under New Labour did not elect this government.

It is those who lived in areas that voted Conservative in 1997 who have benefited most from the social changes that have taken place since then.

In contrast, those who continue to die young disproportionately voted Labour or did not vote at all in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

The Labour Party conference in Manchester this month will feature debates about reducing inequalities in health – debates sponsored by the private equity firm that took over Boots and a major pharmaceutical company. “Equality proofing” policy, they call it.

Yet the best form of “equality proofing” is to ensure that inequalities in living standards do not diverge so rapidly that health inequalities rise too.

That is the policy that has worked for all previous Labour and Liberal prime ministers over the course of the last century.

None of this is inevitable. Rises in income inequalities stalled a few years ago. It is possible that wealth inequality in general may similarly have stopped growing in recent months.

We do not yet know what the impact of the “credit crunch” will be on these figures.

So when Alan Johnson speaks on health this September – assuming he is still health secretary at the end of the month – let us hope his officials will have explained to him just how bad the situation is.

Let us hope that this year they are up to date with their numbers. Let us hope he does something to restore those extra expected years of life that thousands of people who voted Labour most of their lives lost under Labour’s watch.

End three decades of rising health inequalities – there is a legacy that could still be won, and could be won within the next twelve months.

If he seizes this chance, Gordon Brown could yet go down in history as the prime minister under whom 30 years of rising inequality in Britain finally ended.

Danny Dorling is professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield


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