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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.