openDemocracyUK

The Power Gap

Daniel Leighton
17 December 2009

Lord Acton famously held that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet if having unaccountable power to rule over others induces hubris and narcissism, lacking power to rule our selves corrupts in its own way, inducing alienation, depression and resignation to the way things are. The Demos Power Map is a first attempt to quantify the power capabilities people have in their every day lives. In the words of Amartya Sen everyone should have the capabilities they need to “live a life they have reason to value.” A capability is the “power to do something”.

The Map is intended to be the start of conversation about the power in everyday life, not the final word. It assigns a power score to every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales based on a range of quantitative indicators covering levels of personal control, resilience and political participation according to constituency population. The Map aims to depict 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. It adds a geographical picture to what is often said but rarely quantified or displayed at a national level.

The Map reveals the deepest inequality to be between ghettoes of powerless urban people and clusters of powerful people mostly in southern and rural areas. As the main political parties compete to champion giving power back to people, the research demonstrates the scale of the challenge facing the next Government.

There are two different concerns about powerlessness that often get conflated. The first concerns the extent to which citizens have the power to meet their own ends and wants .The second concerns the extent to which societies give their citizens freedom from the power of others.  The first indicates impotence or lack of power, the second domination, or being in the power of another. Lack of power and being subject to domination are not the same and need not be found together.

Power Map is exclusively concerned with developing a portrait of the power citizens have to meet their own ends and wants. This is a different but no less important project to understanding contemporary forms of domination.  While the map does not attempt to measure forms of arbitrary power exercised over others, it does attempt to specify the sort of capabilities people need to resist domination.

The overall distribution of scores shows a very steep differential, or power gap, at the bottom and the top of the index. Those at the bottom, living in what are, relatively speaking, power deserts, have low overall control over their lives. But those at the very top possess very much more power than not only the least powerful, but also the majority of constituencies that fall in the middle.

The factors that contribute most strongly to draining power away from the low-power areas, and also boosting constituencies up to the top of the power scale, are education, occupational status and political power in the form of seat marginality and voter turnout. Education, workplace power and political power are therefore important areas of focus in terms of moving towards more egalitarian power distribution. Those living in safe seats also tend to score poorly in the other categories, making them subject to a form of double damnation: not only do they lack personal control, they also lack meaningful opportunities to change the wider social and political landscape through a real choice at the ballot box. 

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