Thomas Piketty with Labour strategist and peer Stewart Wood in The Gladstone Room in parliament. Photograph: George Eaton.
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Thomas Piketty comes to parliament: what we learned

A review of the French economist's appearance with Miliband strategist Stewart Wood.
 

After his recent bravura performance at IPPR, Thomas Piketty, the intellectual of the moment, appeared at parliament today in conversation with Ed Miliband's senior strategist Stewart Wood. The Labour peer and shadow cabinet office minister was one of the first in Westminster to recognise the significance of Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, tweeting before its British release: "Thomas Piketty's book predicting ever-growing inequality is making waves. We need to start debating how to respond." Today, in the cavernous surroundings of The Gladstone Room (where the PLP and the 1922 Committee hold their weekly meetings), they did just that.

The most politically notable moment of the event, hosted by Class, came when Piketty warned Labour that its planned top tax rate of 50 per cent was "too low" to significantly reduce inequality (caused, as he meticulously documents, by the tendency of the rate of return on capital to outstrip the average growth rate of the economy). The Frenchman rightly noted the absence of evidence to suggest that higher tax rates than this on "very high incomes" (defined as £1m+) will "damage the economy". Although polls show that most voters support a 60p rate, it is a reminder of Labour's self-imposed political limits that there is no prospect of Miliband supporting it (even the 50p rate has been cautiously defended as a temporary deficit reduction measure).

Piketty was warmer about the party's backing for a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m, but urged it to go much further in taxing wealth in general. One of the justifications he offered was that this would enable governments to reduce taxes on the poor and allow them to begin accumulating capital.

He emphasised, however, that redistribution was a necessary but insufficient solution to inequality. As well as taxing the wealthy more and the poorest less, the state must also engage in "predistribution": stopping inequality before it starts. On the day that the Lib Dems pledged to ring-fence the education budget in future coalitions, he championed investment in education and skills, and a higher minimum wage as the key to a more equal society.

While Piketty is often assumed to be a revolutionary socialist (partly owing to his book's conscious allusion to Marx), his comments today were a reminder that he is actually a mainstream social democrat. He noted several times that he has "no problem with inequality per se" and argued that "up to a certain point, it can be useful for innovation and for growth".  It was "extreme inequality" that was indefensible, he said.

Challenged by my former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan on whether Labour's programme was truly bold enough to respond to Piketty's diagnosis, Wood emphasised the party's commitment to both redistribution and predistribution and said he was keen to encourage "debate" among all parts of the political spectrum on how to do more.

Among the wonkish discussion, some light relief was supplied by Len McCluskey. In his question to Wood, the Unite general secretary mistakenly referred to him as an Arsenal fan. The lifelong Liverpool supporter, whose official title is Lord Wood of Anfield and whose Twitter avatar is the club's badge, looked appropriately mortified.

P.S. I interviewed Wood earlier today on Piketty's work and will be posting the conversation on The Staggers later this week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.