How pay inequality has soared

Over the last 25 years, the top one per cent have seen their pay increase by a massive 117 per cent.

The Office for National Statistics released a report today detailing increases in real wages across the pay distribution. It chose to lead on the fact that real wages have, on average, increased by 62 per cent over the 25 years from 1986 to 2011 (an annual rate of increase of 1.9 per cent).

What is more interesting though is the pattern of increases in real wages across the pay distribution. The very lowest paid – those in the bottom one per cent of the pay distribution did a little better than the average, seeing their real wages increase by 70 per cent, in no small part due to the introduction of the national minimum wage. But the biggest gains are to be found among those with the highest pay. Someone at the 90th percentile of the pay distribution (i.e. just in the top 10 per cent or earners) saw their real pay increase by 81 per cent, while for the top one per cent real pay increased by a massive 117 per cent - over 3.1 per cent a year.

In fact, apart from the bottom seven per cent of the pay distribution, the further up the pay distribution a person is, the greater has been the increase in their real pay. Apart from the bottom seven per cent, pay inequality has increased, particularly at the very top of the scale.

The report also looks at what happened between 1986 and 1998 – before the introduction of the National Minimum Wage – and between 1998 and 2011. The contrast between the two periods is perhaps the most interesting finding of the report.

In the first period, real pay gains were larger the further up the pay scale you were, and those at the very top – especially the highest one per cent of earners did exceptionally well. Remember also that these figures are all for pay before tax and national insurance contributions. The cut in the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent in 1988 means that in after tax terms, the gap between the gains of those at the top and the rest of the distribution will have been even greater.

Between 1998 and 2011, however, the biggest gains in real pay went to those in the very bottom 2% of the pay distribution – those who benefited directly from the introduction of the national minimum wage. For much of the rest of the pay distribution, the increase in real pay over the period was much the same. Only the top few percent did better.

For 90 per cent of the pay distribution, wage inequality was unchanged between 1998 and 2011. But those at the very top of the pay scale still managed to secure bigger gains than everyone else.

This suggests any attempt to tackle inequality in pay needs to start by halting, and then reversing this tendency for pay at the very top to increase faster than pay for the rest of the workforce.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

The City of London sprawls out, as seen from the under construction 20 Fenchurch Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear