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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.