To boost wages, alter the balance of power in offices

Publishing income tax records could help predistribute wealth.

Publicly posting tax returns is an idea that's mostly been explored in the context of tax avoidance. The idea is that if the amount of tax the rich and famous pay were made public, "the might be motivated to fill out their taxes correctly", as the New York Times' Anna Bernasek put it in 2010. It ought to be supported by small-statists, too, since the disclosure of the myriad loopholes used by the wealthy to avoid tax would lead to support for a simplified tax system.

But public disclosure of income tax filings also has a role to play in political sphere: that of redistribution – or, to use the Labourite buzzword of the year, predistribution – of wealth.

A TUC pamphlet, published today, looks at how to boost the wage share [pdf]. That's the proportion of GDP which is paid to employees, as opposed to ending up in the pockets of shareholders (or, to a lesser extent, small business owners – official statistics record them as a separate category from shareholders or employees, because they share characteristics with both), and it appears to have seen a permanent drop since the 1970s:

Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, the authors of the pamphlet, examine a few different ways to counteract that trend, from raising the national minimum wage or boosting take-up of the living wage to extending the role collective bargaining. They argue that could be done through a re-establishment of the Wages Councils, which were empowered to set minimum wages in various industries until John Major's government abolished them in 1994.

But one of the strongest ways to boost the wage share of income is to make it easier for individual employees to negotiate their wages up; and that can be helped greatly by making income tax returns – and thus, incomes – public.

When it comes to negotiating wages, employees are usually at a disadvantage. That's largely because, for all but the smallest companies, being one person short on headcount is much easier for a business to live with than having no job is for a person.

But there's also an information asymmetry. You both know publicly available salaries (for jobs similar to yours which are being advertised), but your employer also has access to a second pool of information: they know what they're paying your co-workers. That's information they can cite when it's in their interest and hide when it's not. Over time, that adds up, to lead to wages lower than they ought to be.

One of the purposes of unions is to overcome this information asymmetry; so in my profession, for example, the NUJ maintains a list of reported rates for freelancers, to help people fight for fair pay. But that's only useful to a certain extent; being able to cite the pay of the person who sits next to you when arguing for a raise is far more useful than being able to cite an average for the industry.

The balance of power within corporations is one of the hardest aspects of our lives for the state to affect, but one where it could do the most good. Publishing income tax records, as is already done in Finland and Norway, could well be a first step on that road.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.