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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era