Even after Thatcher, the Conservatives never learned the benefits of redistribution

Sometimes you want to make everyone better off, not just the rich.

One of the clips of Thatcher which has been passed around in the days since her death is this one, of two exchanges from her last speech in the House of Commons on 22 November 1990. In it, she attacks the left-wing focus on equality by arguing that that focus ends up resulting in making the poor poorer – just by less than it makes the rich poorer:

I've never understood why it's an exchange held in quite such high regard – the bit at the end, where she starts making graphs with her hands, is a particularly excruciating bit of political communication – but the point does stick home. It's not that common to hear arguments for the poor to be made poorer, but it remains the case that policies which help both rich and poor are argued against on the grounds that they help the rich more.

There's good reasons for this, of course. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level documents exhaustively, in developed nations like our own, a huge number of social, political and health outcomes are dictated by equality, not absolute wealth. So even given the fact that Thatcher's legacy was of the poor getting richer, the fact that that it included a massive increase in inequality may have meant that poor people were worse off at the end of her premiership than the beginning.

But if hurting the poor to hurt the rich more is a trap for socialists, there's a sort of parallel problem that Conservatives fall prey to: an opposition to redistribution which prevents them enacting policy combinations that help everyone.

A new paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, titled "Untangling Trade and Technology: Evidence from Local Labor Markets", compares and contrasts the effects of trade and technology on employment. On the face of it, it doesn't matter to you whether you lose your job because a robot can do it cheaper, or because a Chinese labourer can do it cheaper: you still don't have your job, and your employer has more money. But in actual fact, the two have markedly different macroeconomic effects:

Trade exposure reduces overall employment and shifts the distribution of employment between sectors, [but] exposure to technological change has substantially different impacts, characterized by neutral effects on overall employment and substantial shifts in occupational composition within sectors.

Trade in particular is found to impose "particularly large" employment losses on workers without college education; but even technological change, which is neutral on "overall employment", has the effect of destroying middle income jobs while bolstering high- and low-paid labour.

Of course, all of that is background to the strong evidence that technological change and free trade make society as a whole richer. The problem isn't with the lack of gains – it's with the distribution of those gains.

How do you deal with good gains and a bad distribution? You bank the gains, and fiddle with the distribution. Cut taxes – or boost tax credits – at the bottom end of the income distribution, and pay for it with higher taxes at the top end. Or even just leave taxes at the top the same, and use the fact that the rich are getting richer – and thus paying more tax – to (more than) compensate the poor for the losses.

This is the lesson that Thatcher, and the Conservatives who have followed her, never learned. It's more than just economic good sense: it's politically useful, too, to be able to tell everyone that they will be made better off. Think how much easier the debate over immigration would be if the Tories could point to a tax cut – for the poor – which was funded through the increased gains migration brings.

In the language of economics, there are very few pareto-optimal policies left; the number of changes you can do which help everyone, as opposed to helping some and harming others, has dropped close to zero. But a good bundle of policies can still make everyone better off – and that bundle will nearly always include redistribution of wealth.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.