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

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.