Inequality is falling, and for once, Cameron would be right to blame Brown

Nothing the Government has done will help equality. That's why they're keeping quiet about it.

A piece by John Rentoul in today's Independent has been making waves. Rentoul argues that, because inequality in Britain fell in 2010-2011 – the first year of the Conservative government – the Coalition has actually lived up to its promise to ensure that "we're all in it together".

He writes:

In June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published an analysis of official data that found that, although all after-tax incomes fell in the first year of the Coalition (2010-11), higher incomes fell more than lower incomes, resulting in a more equal distribution.

This is true. Although it's hard to check, because he doesn't cite with any specificity, it appears that these are the findings he's referring to:

Three different measures of inequality, including the internationally-accepted Gini coefficient, all fell sharply in the first year of the coalition government. The Gini in particular fell to levels which Britain hasn't seen since 1997.

But although these are after-tax measures of inequality, attributing all the changes to the tax system would be incorrect. And although they happened during the first year of the coalition government, giving credit to that government would be inaccurate.

The IFS explain why inequality fell so sharply in section 3.6 of their report. Part of the rise in equality was because "the largest falls in income took place at the very top of the income distribution"; the introduction of the 50p income tax rate "is one of the major drivers" of that fall. So a measure enacted 37 days before the coalition came to power – and halved in magnitude in that coalition's second budget – is responsible for a lot of the fall in inequality which Rentoul is attributing to Cameron. Perhaps the Government deserves credit for not scrapping the tax band completely, but normally one praises people for doing good, not for doing less bad than they might have.

The IFS doesn't break out any further causes of the 2010-11 rise in equality, but it does point out that, between 1997 and 2010, Labour supported the bottom part of the income distribution with "significant increases in the amount of redistribution". It adds that, since the Government plans further spending cuts, "changes in private incomes and government tax and benefit policy… seem likely to lead to increases rather than decreases in income inequality in the coming years."

In other words, the Government would be silly to stake its reputation on a chance fall in inequality due mostly to the actions of its predecessor – because what it has got planned will make the situation much, much worse.

Rather than looking at what the government inherited, Rentoul should instead have looked at what it's got planned. That was in the IFS report as well. Here's the chart summarising it:


That's rather less sharing of the pain than Rentoul implied. The bottom four deciles are taking by far the most pain proportionally, and only then does the richest decile take its portion of the cuts.

The reason why the coalition hasn't been shouting from the rooftops about narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor is because it didn't do it. To quote Cameron from what seems like every Prime Ministers Questions since he was elected, "it was the fault of the last Labour Government". We will have to wait a bit longer to see what effects his vision of equality in Britain turns out to have; but judging by the changes he has implemented, they won't be pretty.

David Cameron in May 2010. His first action as PM was to travel back in time and implement the 50p tax rate, thus ensuring inequality would fall under his Government. 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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.