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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories