Why don’t the super-rich pay down the budget deficit?

There is an alternative to ever-greater austerity for the majority.

One assumption dominates the start of 2012. It will be an extremely grim year as the public starts having to pay down the deficit in real earnest, but they will grudgingly accept the substantial pain involved so long as it is fairly shared. It certainly isn't, however, and the growing realisation of this could well prove the government's Achilles heel in this year's bumpy handling of austerity.

There has been debate about whether the deficit should be cut through a stimulus to growth or through austerity measures, and even if the latter were chosen, how far and how fast the cuts should be inflicted. But there has been no discussion as to whether the pain is being fairly parcelled around. Initial Treasury claims after Osborne's June 2010 budget that the richest fifth of the population would be harder hit than the poorest fifth were quickly exploded when it was shown that this paradox depended on smuggling in the effects of Labour's last two budgets as well. But since then a great deal of new evidence exposes the falsity of this convenient canard.

The 100-page Rich List compiled by Philip Beresford and published last May presented a very different picture. Its analysis found that the 1,000 richest persons in Britain were £60.2bn better off than they were in 2010, and that they were £77.3bn better off in 2010 than they were in 2009. What this means is the staggering fact that just 0.003 per cent of the population, the richest of the rich, could by themselves alone pay off the entire deficit of £127bn and still leave themselves £10bn in surplus. Yet in the absence of a wealth tax, a mansions tax, a land value tax or a supertax on excess gains they are being required to make hardly any contribution at all to deficit reduction, even though many of them were directly involved in causing the financial crash in the first place.

This is all the more remarkable that such colossal gains accrued to such a tiny group of super-rich people when the vast majority of the population were being forced into stringent belt-tightening. In 2010 and 2011 full-time workers right across the earnings range have seen their real earnings decline. Nor was this just a temporary freak winner-takes-all for Britain's richest. In 1997 the richest 1,000 persons had assets of £99bn; by 2011 their assets had grown to £396bn. This means that the increase in their wealth over this period was almost two-and-a-half times the size of the total budget deficit. In terms of fair shares, one might expect they would be required to pay down at least a sizeable chunk of the nation's overdraft.

Whilst these are the facts about wealth in Britain today, the position on the distribution of earnings is equally damning. The OECD report 'Divided We Stand', published last month, showed that the top 1 per cent, those earning over £150,000 a year, doubled their share of the nation's total income from 7.1 per cent in 1970 to 14.3 per cent in 2005. Even more significantly, the share taken by the top 0.1 per cent, those with an average annual income of £1.2 million, jumped to 5 per cent. At the other end of the scale the share of the bottom quarter of the population was only 9.6 per cent. This means that the highest-paid 30,000 earners were taking home the same amount of money as the lowest-paid 4.5 million, a ratio between top and bottom of 150:1. The onus however between rich and poor in paying down the deficit represents almost exactly the opposite ratio.

As a result of the switch from the retail prices index to the significantly lower consumer prices index in uprating benefits, the cap on housing benefit payments, the doubling of the pension contribution rate for public sector workers, the pay freeze and real terms pay cuts, and the disproportionate dependence of the poorest households on public expenditure, the burden of paying back the deficit falls overwhelmingly on the bottom third of households. For the richest, by contrast, the burden is payment-lite. The balance between expenditure and benefit cuts on the one hand and tax increases on the other as decreed by Osborne is 77:23 per cent, and of the latter 23 per cent half is accounted for by the rise in VAT which falls most heavily on the poorest households.

In terms of fair shares in the pay-down this is gratuitously up-ended. Data published last month showed that the bottom tenth of earners got a 0.1 per cent rise in pay in the previous year, while over the same period the rise for FTSE-100 directors was 49 per cent. The month before the published accounts of the canteen catering firm Compass Group, a typical FTSE-100 company, revealed that the pay of the chief executive Richard Cousins was £84,615 a week whilst the average pay of his staff, many of them dinner ladies, was £240 a week, a ratio of 352:1. Yet the deficit charge on Mr. Cousins and others like him, unlike that on his dinner ladies, will be relatively paltry.

Even where the Labour Government had made a small start in focusing payback on the better-off, Osborne has now reversed it. In 2009 tax relief on pension contributions amounted to £20.6bn, of which £14bn or two- thirds was concentrated on higher-rate taxpayers. The 2009 budget then announced that the 40 per cent higher rate pension tax relief would be tapered down to 20 per cent for those with incomes of £150,000, with effect from April 2011. One of Osborne's first acts was to repeal it.

The St. Paul's Occupiers were right about the 1per cent against the 99 per cent, except that the inequality and the unfairness that goes with it are more extreme than even they imagined. Most people have been persuaded that they must now endure grinding austerity for years and years ahead because there is no alternative. But actually there is.

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage