In her speech to TUC delegates in Liverpool, the TUC’s general secretary Frances O’ Grady spoke of the creation of a “Downton Abbey-style society” in which social mobility, “has hit reverse”. Unfortunately, this analysis appears to be accurate. Average pay has not shrunk for such a long period since the Victorian era. The effects of this can be seen in the 54% rise in food bank demand in 2013, with approximately a million dependent on them.
Homelessness has also risen by 34% between 2010 and 2013. Meanwhile, this year, the wealth of Britain’s richest 1000 people rose by 15.4% to hit a new high of £519 billion. Furthermore, a lack of social mobility can be seen in recent research by the Sutton Trust, which suggested that pupils from wealthier backgrounds gained a “substantial” advantage from tuition and extra-curricular activities. The research discovered that 27% of the wealthiest 11-16 year olds received private tutoring in the past year, compared to 15% from the poorest backgrounds. Clearly, similar inequalities to those which exist in the world of “Downton Abbey” are present today.
However, I believe that this inequality and lack of social mobility are causes of another issue explored in “Downton Abbey”; a lack of democracy. Series 2 of the show touched upon themes of female suffrage, and, it was against this backdrop that the Labour Party; designed to represent working class people, had only recently been born. For the most part, power remained in the hands of a small, wealthy, male elite. It’s hard not to notice the parallels with today. We have a government, which until the recent reshuffle, had a cabinet which consisted of privileged billionaires, millionaires and old Etonians. Such a cabinet does not reflect the make-up of the electorate.
Owen Jones argues in his latest book, “The Establishment”, that today’s establishment is “the institution by which a wealthy elite defends its interests in a democracy”. Considering the growing inequalities in our society this appears to be the case. Not only this, but the legislation the public desire is not being passed. For example, a recent YouGov poll found that 66% want energy renationalised, 68% want the railways returned to public ownership and 84% want the NHS in public hands.
However, the government and its opposition fail to deliver the desires of the electorate. We are merely offered an energy price freeze and a non-committal grunt at half-hearted rail nationalisation by Ed Milliband, as well as a top-down reorganisation of the NHS by the current government which placed many services in private hands. These wishes are passed over because it is in the elite’s interests. For example, one fifth of those who voted for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 in the Lords had shares in private health care companies. Prior to this, the “Cash for Honours” scandal of 2006-2007 demonstrated money being valued over representation.
O’ Grady is correct in her assertion that we are moving to a society akin to “Downton Abbey”, but this is not only in the sphere of inequality. It is evident in the fact that only one in five MP’s are women. It is also exhibited in the revelation by Dawn Butler in 2008, the third black woman to become an MP that, “racism and sexism is parliament’s dirty little secret”. It seems that the governing institutions of our society are, as they were in the world of “Downton Abbey”, the domain of the white, wealthy male.
Unless our governments are re-shaped and made to adequately represent different sections of society; all racial groups, sexualities, genders and classes, we will see legislation for the good of the few rather than the many. It is time to hold our politicians to account before our democratic rights are stripped back still further.