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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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman