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.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.