Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty
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While the Tories claim that growth is back, Ed Miliband will seize the Inequality Moment

Discussion of the gap between rich and poor has gone mainstream.

In autumn 2003, a new class called “What’s Left? The Politics of Social Justice” began at Harvard University. The visiting lecturer played a video of a Newsnight interview with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 2001 election. In the clip, Jeremy Paxman asked the then prime minister six times whether the gap between rich and poor mattered – and six times he dodged the question. “It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money,” was one response.

The lecturer was Ed Miliband, then a 33-year-old special adviser in Blair’s government, on a sabbatical in the US. Inequality bothered Miliband much more than his boss. In June 2013, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that between 1997 and 2010, “Those right at the top saw their incomes increase very substantially with the result that… overall inequality nudged up slightly.” A friend of Miliband’s from his Harvard days told me that the failure to tackle the gap between the rich and the rest was “a key source of his dissatisfaction with Blair and New Labour” during this period.

More than a decade later, the leader of the Labour Party believes that “tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics”, to quote from his Hugo Young Lecture on 10 February. His closest adviser, the academic and peer Stewart Wood, leads the charge on inequality inside Miliband’s office. “Ed’s concern to stop Britain continuing down the path of growing inequality, to the detriment of social justice and our economic health, will be central to any government that he leads,” Wood tells me.

But aren’t all Labour leaders – with the exception of Blair and maybe Gordon Brown – concerned with the gap between rich and poor? Perhaps. However, the difference is that inequality is no longer a niche issue.

Forget Occupy Wall Street – how about the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, elected on a populist pledge to tackle the Big Apple’s “tale of two cities”? Or the new darling of the US Democratic Party, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has called for a minimum wage hike to “stop income inequality in America”? Or even the US president? In a speech in December, Barack Obama called the income gap “the defining challenge of our time”.

Listen also to the words of the Pope. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by the happy few,” the pontiff wrote in November. Then there’s the IMF, which said in February that inequality hinders growth.

Miliband invoked both de Blasio and the Pope in his Hugo Young Lecture; he often cites their names and Warren’s in private as well. “Whose recovery is this?” has replaced “Too far, too fast” as the economic mantra of choice in his office. Miliband believes the paradigm has shifted. The public is fed up with the rise and rise of the super-rich – the 1 percenters – at the expense of everyone else. Consider the polling: 74 per cent of voters believe the gap between rich and poor is widening (ComRes); 60 per cent say the Autumn Statement was good for “rich people”, compared to just 21 per cent who say it was good for “people like me” (Ipsos MORI); and a majority of voters (64 per cent) think company bosses shouldn’t be paid in excess of ten times more than their lowest-paid employees (Survation).

Yet, between 1985 and 2008, the top 10 per cent went from receiving incomes that were eight times higher than the bottom 10 per cent to incomes that were 12 times higher. According to the High Pay Centre, the chief executives of Britain’s biggest companies earned more money in the first three days of the year than the average worker will make over 12 months.

On 10 March, Capital in the 21st Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty, is published in English. Described as “one of the watershed books in economic thinking” by the World Bank’s Branko Milanovic, it argues that the main driver of soaring inequality – the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth – is hard-wired into modern capitalism and threatens to undermine modern democracy. The author’s solution? A global wealth tax.

Such utopian thinking won’t help Miliband but to pretend that Labour policies – such as a levy on bankers’ bonuses, a 50p top rate of tax, a mansion tax and a living wage – won’t make a dent in income inequality is disingenuous. Wood, a fan of the book, says: “We must respond to [Piketty’s] challenge with ambition and imagination, not with pessimism.” Labour, he tells me, “needs to set itself the task of reforming the way our economies work so that higher productivity and lower inequality go together”.

This isn’t just about economics. The politics matter, too. Pledging to tackle inequality – within the rubric of “Whose recovery is this?” – helps Labour neutralise the positive Tory narrative of “Growth is back”. Crucially, it offers Miliband his own brand of progressive populism to challenge the right-wing, anti-welfare populism of the Conservatives. This is the Inequality Moment. Yet the Tories, with their historic aversion to any mention of the “I” word, will struggle to answer the question: “Whose recovery is this?” Miliband’s calculation is that voters won’t. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.