Seeking a fairer distribution of power

New Labour think tank Demos release a video looking at power, ahead of their launch of a “power map” on Monday.

Power is the political currency of the day. All three of the main parties now extol the importance of “giving power away”, devolving power and empowering people.

As Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne recently put it:

“The debate about power and how we create a country of ‘powerful people’ is the real question in modern politics.”

David Cameron has pledged a “massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power”, and Nick Clegg has written that “liberalism’s starting point is the fairer dispersal and distribution of power”.

Yet they all speak without a clear notion of people’s differential capacities to exercise power in their everyday lives. In the UK’s highly centralised political system it is in the gift of government to decentralise its own power, but how does this enhance the power people already possess at home or in the workplace?

In an era where social mobility has flat-lined, what capacities do people in different places have to take advantage of new opportunities for participation and decision-making promised by the all the main parties?

The animating ideal of Demos’s power video is that all people should have power over their own lives, and the power to shape the society in which they live.

In democratic societies power is vested in the people, rather than the church or state, but this tells us little about inequalities of power within ‘the people’.

A new Demos map of power, to be released on Monday, shows power is unevenly distributed in today’s Britain.


The Map, which assigns power scores to every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales, shows the country is divided between those with the financial, educational and political resources to exercise power, and those without.

There is a good deal of attention paid to gaps in income, wealth, opportunity and health. Put together, these amount to a gap in power. Power ultimately concerns people’s capacity to be in control of their own lives rather than being totally subject to the vagaries of fate or the arbitrary whims of those with more power.

The Power Index on which the map is based, brings indicators in these areas together to show there are in Britain not one, but ‘two nations’: the powerful and powerless. The Map shows where the most powerful and powerless citizens live; what factors make them score higher; disparities across and within regions; and which political parties represent the powerless and powerful.

The results raise tough questions about the role of education, levels of control and autonomy at work and electoral reform in improving people’s power situation.

So, we may ask, what intellectual and political resources do different political parties have for addressing the power gap and to what extent are they constrained by their various blind spots? Although the banking crisis has put the power of big finance centre-stage, over the past decade neither party has given much thought to the power people have in their everyday lives outside of their relation to the state.

David Cameron has gone so far as to suggest that the principle power-sapping agent in today’s society is the “Big State” – yet the convergence between centre-Left and centre-Right in recent decades has meant key elements of people’s power over their own lives had been under-looked, most notably in the economy and the workplace.

The aim of the Power Map is to democratise and pluralise ideas of power by looking at the distribution of people’s capacities to be the authors of their own lives. Only by doing so can we bring in to clearer focus the strategies needed to close the gap between the powerful and the powerless.

Our guest writer is Dan Leighton, a Senior Researcher at Demos

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