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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.