GDP may have risen, but the poorest fifth still lose out on £2,000 a year because of rising inequality

What would Britain be like if the income distribution was the same as in 1977?

GDP figures released today have shown a slight increase of 0.3 per cent over the past three months. But what will this mean for those at the lower end of the income scale, or even those in the middle?

We know that income inequality in the UK has been rising since around 1980, and has offset the benefits of economic growth for most people. But how has it actually changed incomes? Who has gained, who has lost, and by how much?

Figures published by the Resolution Foundation Commission on Living Standards found that in 1977, of every £100 of value generated by the economy, £16 went to the bottom half of workers in wages. By 2010 that figure had declined by 26 per cent, to just £12.

To find out what's going on in a bit more detail, we used figures from the Office of National Statistics to calculate what income levels would have been in 2010/11 if the distribution of income had remained as it was in 1977. We’ve then compared this to the actual income levels in 2010/11.

These figures are household income after taxes and benefits, adjusted for the number of people in each household.

The bottom fifth of households are getting almost £2,000 less than they would if total household income was still distributed as in 1977, while the top fifth are getting over £8,000 more. The pay ratio between the top fifth and the bottom fifth also climbed from 4 in 1977 to 5.5 in 2010/11.

If you are in your 30s and 40s and grew up in the UK then you spent your childhood in a society that was significantly more equal than the one we live in now. In the post-war years inequality decreased, reaching its lowest point in the 1970s. The 1980s, however, saw the steepest increase in inequality on record in the UK, with the gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth increasing by 60% in just a decade, leaving Britain out on a limb (alongside the US) as one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Since then, successive governments have used the rhetoric of decreasing inequality but failed to reverse this trend.

This rise in inequality is not just affecting the very poor and the very rich. Increasing inequality has meant less income for all households in the bottom four-fifths of the population. Although the pie got larger between 1977 and 2010/11, we can see that the bottom four fifths are all getting a much smaller portion of that pie.

In absolute terms, those losing out the most are not the poorest but those in the middle, who are getting £2,500 less than they would be without the rise in inequality since the 70s. However, it is the poorest that are losing out on the highest proportion of their income. Households in the bottom fifth are living on an average of £10,693 per year, and an extra £1,948 would be an 18% increase on their incomes. With wages lagging behind inflation, a food and fuel poverty crisis and cuts starting to bite, that extra income could be life changing for many of the UK’s poorest families.

Photograph: Getty Images

Annie Quick is a researcher at York University.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder