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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Every day, Theresa May's mask slips a little further

First the Human Rights Act, now Dfid. What's next, asks Jon Ashworth.

The news that the new International Development Secretary is about to slash development spending and channel Britain's aid budget into defence spending is yet another major slip of the new government's centrist mask.

Theresa May has tried to pitch her policy agenda as prioritising social justice and a “Britain that works for everyone” but the reality is that this announcement is the true right-wing colours of her government shining through.

The appointment of the most right-wing Cabinet for decades was a major warning sign, with figures such as David Davis, who said he was “very worried” about sexual discrimination legislation, and Liam Fox, who said equal marriage was “social engineering”, now at the highest level in government.

Those of us passionate about development were horrified when Priti Patel, who has previously called for the Department for International Development to be scrapped, was appointed as the department's new Secretary of State, but few of us would have imagined such a dramatic break with Britain's strong development legacy so soon.

Not only is what is reported very dubious in terms of the strict regulations placed on development spending- and Priti Patel has already come dangerously close to crossing that line by saying we could use the aid budget to leverage trade deals - it also betrays some of the very poorest in the world at a time when many regions are facing acute humanitarian crises.

It was Gordon Brown who put international development at the heart of 13 years of Labour government, massively increasing aid spending and focusing minds in Britain and abroad on the plight of those suffering from poverty, famine and the ravages of war. David Cameron followed Gordon’s lead, enshrining the 0.7 per cent aid budget in law, making Britain the first G7 country to do so. In light of these new revelations Theresa May must now restate her commitment to the target.

Sadly, it now seems that Theresa May and Priti Patel want to turn the clock back on all that progress, diminishing Britain's role in international development and subverting the original mission of the department by turning it into a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, focused on self-interest and security. Not only will this create the opposite of the "outward-looking and globally-minded country" Theresa May said just weeks ago she wanted Britain to be, it’s also a betrayal of some of the poorest people across the planet.

Other examples of the right-wing traits of this Government surfaced earlier this week too. On Friday it emerged that Gerard Lopez, a tax-haven based businessman with links to Russian State banks that have been sanctioned in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict, donated £400,000 to the Tory party just months ago. Theresa May needs to tell us what meetings and interactions she has had with Lopez.

Earlier in the week Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary, brazenly insisted that the Government would proceed with scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite fierce opposition from politicians of all parties and the public.

With so many right-wing announcements trickling though when the government has hardly had time to change the name plaques above the doors you've got to wonder and worry about what else is set to come.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.