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The class politics of standardised mortality rates

Bryncethin? It’s some village near Bridgend, apparently. Never heard of it until this morning, to be honest. Wouldn’t like to guess as to how you pronounce the name. However, the place finds itself in the news this morning, after data released to parliament revealed that the age-adjusted death rate per nominal 100,000 people is 1,499. That compares with 1,452 in Botswana and 1,427 in Rwanda.

This could just be a statistical quirk. After all, Bryncethin doesn’t have 100,000 people. There are only some 1,300 residents. Maybe 2009 was just an unlucky year for a couple of the locals. But as the full excel spreadsheet reveals, there are over 100 wards in England and Wales where the death rate is more than double the 492 per 100,000 seen in the UK as a whole, and they are heavily concentrated in former industrial areas.

The local authorities that figure in the table include the likes of Corby, Gateshead, Hull, St Helens, Stockton-on-Tees, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Bradford, Nottingham and others you can almost certainly guess. Interestingly, I didn’t spot anywhere in London.

According to the Office for National Statistics, something called ‘socio-economic status’ is one of the variables at work. In plain English, that translates to ‘class’.

One way or another, most of the other variables boil down to class as well. Deprivation is by definition concentrated on the poorest districts, and pollution usually is as well. Provision of health and other services tends to be far worse than in posh neighbourhoods.

When it comes down to what the ONS calls ‘health behaviour’, the reality is that the poorest are the more likely to smoke, to drink too much and to use the most dangerous drugs.

Nor are standardised mortality stats the only evidence that class can kill. As the Scottish National Party highlighted in the Glasgow East by-election campaign in 2008, life expectancy in parts of Glasgow is lowerthan on the Gaza Strip.

Depressingly, none of the regional and social discrepancies outlined above would shock a time traveller catapulted into the Britain of today from the 1930s.

Longevity has increased dramatically for all sections of society and across the entire country, of course. But now as then, it is the working class parts of Scotland, Wales, the north and the Midlands that come off the worst.

With the UK economy now seemingly set for a long period of at best stagnation, my guess would be that nothing is going to change any time soon.

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