Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the EU at the London Business School on March 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Ed Miliband is set to declare war on inequality

The Labour leader is increasingly convinced not just of the moral and economic case for tackling inequality but also of the political case for doing so.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Fifty years later, Ed Miliband is set to declare his own war - on inequality. More than ever, the Labour leader is convinced that the widening chasm between the rich and the rest (revealed again today by Oxfam) is the defining issue of our time.

In the years before the crash, inequality was dismissed as a left-wing talking point, redolent of the “politics of envy” and inimical to middle class “aspiration”. Incomes might have been rising faster at the top than at the bottom but all, it was thought, were sharing in the fruits of seemingly permanent growth. Tony Blair captured the spirit of the age when he declared that he didn’t go into politics “to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”. But the financial crisis and the uneven nature of the recovery that has followed mean that, as Miliband declared in his Hugo Young Lecture last month, “tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics”.

When he made the issue a defining theme of his Labour leadership campaign in 2010, it was viewed as a radical challenge to the Westminster consensus. But three and a half years later, Miliband can pray in aid an impressive array of political and intellectual figures. In the US, where 95 per cent of the rise in national income between 2009 and 2012 was captured by the top 1 per cent, Barack Obama has spoken repeatedly of the need to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor (a departure from the bland US emphasis on widening “opportunity”) and radical Democrat Bill de Blasio won a landslide victory in the New York mayoral election after vowing to address “the crisis of income inequality”. For Miliband and his strategists, such figures are crucial evidence of his claim that the tide is flowing in the left's direction. 

Over the same period, Pope Francis has warned that “inequality is the root of social ills”; Conservatives such as Jesse Norman, David Skelton, Robert Halfon and Sarah Wollaston have urged their party to reject libertarian individualism in favour of a Burkean commitment to social justice; and the World Economic Forum and the IMF have identified inequality as one of the greatest threats to future prosperity. From supposedly being a left-wing obsession, the income gap has become a political obsession.

Miliband, more than most, can claim to have been ahead of the curve. Since rising to political prominence, he has consistently argued that progressive governments have both a moral and an economic duty to limit inequality. As he wrote in a piece for the New Statesman on The Spirit Level in August 2010, "We, politicians and the public, have to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and whether the difficult task of greater equality is worth the candle. It is - and it is at the very heart of why we need to move on from New Labour. During our years in power, we didn't do enough to stop the gap between rich and poor getting wider. If you really believe in a society where there is social mobility, where we look after each other, where we build social solidarity, then the gap matters."

He is now increasingly convinced not just of the moral and economic case for tackling inequality but also of the political case for doing so. If it was once thought that parties couldn’t afford to talk about the gap for fear of alienating aspirational centrists, Miliband believes that they can’t afford not to. Polls show that as many as 80 per cent of voters believe the government has a duty to reduce inequality, while measures designed to do so attract overwhelming support. As I’ve noted before, if Miliband is a “socialist”, so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of the Labour leader).

The political success of his emphasis on the “cost-of-living” (regarded by Labour strategists as a “proxy” for inequality) is due in large part to his recognition that this is a recovery “for the few, not the many”. While avoiding appearing to deny that growth has returned, he can complain at how unfairly its fruits have been distributed. Britain today is a country in which, for the first time ever, there are more people from working families living in poverty (6.7 million) than from workless and retired ones (6.3 million). When Miliband delivers his response to George Osborne's Budget on Wednesday, it is these failures that he will target. 

The traditional political objection to progressive taxation was that it would repel the middle class voters who dreamt of one day joining the ranks of the rich. But even were this once true, few now entertain such ambitions after years of falling wages. The living standards crisis, with 11 million low and middle income workers seeing no rise in their earnings since 2003, has created the potential for a cross-class coalition of the 99 per cent against the 1 per cent (who now account for more than 14 per cent of all income).

Miliband will vow to address inequality through a combination of redistribution - the 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, a bank bonus tax, a major crackdown on tax avoidance (a subject which I'm told he will soon address in detail), the repeal of the bedroom tax, a less punitive benefit cap - and predistribution (seeking to create more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits) - universal childcare, a mass housebuilding programme, the energy price freeze, a higher minimum wage, greater use of the living wage and worker representation on remuneration committees. 

The long-term question for Miliband, if he wins office, and for all British progressives is how much of a difference all of this would make. In his new book Capital in the 21st Century (recently highlighted by Miliband strategist Stewart Wood), economist Thomas Piketty warns that, contrary to mainstream left and right assumptions, widening inequality is an innate feature of modern capitalism (one temporarily masked by the atypical post-war period) and will be only be curbed through a global wealth tax. On a domestic level, he argues, top rates of income tax should return to their pre-neoliberal levels of 70-80 per cent. 

But if there is little prospect of Labour's election manifesto making room for such policies (and many economists reject Piketty's pessimistic assumptions), it is clear that Miliband will still offer the most comprehensive programme for tackling inequality of any political leader for a generation. 

There was once a time when David Cameron was prepared to acknowledge the gap between the rich and poor and its baleful effects.  In his 2009 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture he noted:

Research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In "The Spirit Level", they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country's rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.

But he has since reverted to Thatcherite type, treating the size of the gap between the rich and the poor as an irrelevance and offering only a more elegant version of Norman Tebbit's "get on your bike". "You’ve got to get out there and find people, win them over, get them to raise aspirations and get them to think that they can get all the way to the top," he said recently. The political field has been left open to Miliband. 

In the days following the death of Tony Benn, many have remarked on how distant the debates that defined his era now appear. But the chasm that separates Miliband's stance on inequality from that of Cameron is the strongest evidence yet of why the next election will be defined by precisely the kind of big choices that have for so long been absent from British politics. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.