Parties should submit their policies to "inequality testing" by the OBR. Photo: Getty
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In attempting to fix the economy, all parties have neglected to fix inequality

An Autumn Statement for the few.

Autumn Statement post-mortems always involve a key question – who are the winners, and who are the losers? Have pensioners done well? Have the young benefitted? How have families done? It’s a tried and tested method but it misses a far simpler and more important issue for many – how have the richest benefitted, and how does this compare to the rest of us.

In the past few months the UK’s extreme inequality has grown as an issue of public concern. Politicians from all parties have taken note. Ed Miliband’s Senate House speech focused largely on the idea that our current level of inequality is not accidental, but is instead fuelled by ideology. David Cameron has shown a similar desire to discuss inequality, celebrating statistics that saw a reduction in the Gini coefficient during the coalition’s term. And north of the border, Nicola Sturgeon has promised a “strong focus” on closing the gap between rich and poor under her leadership.

So does anything from today’s Autumn Statement match this rhetoric? Certainly some policies announced will have an important role to play in reducing inequality. An extra £3m to tackle national minimum wage avoidance is to be welcomed, as is a review of business rates. And there were also encouraging noises on further targeting of aggressive tax avoidance.

Stamp duty proposals should be an important progressive move, but the 98 per cent of people they are purported to help will be those able to buy a house. Many people are nowhere near being able to afford property. A far more important policy on property would be to replace council tax with a truly progressive property tax, this would benefit most those who are genuinely struggling to put a roof over their heads.

Making student loans worth up to £10,000 available to all young people taking post-graduate masters degrees is all well and good, but this ignores the important need to make funding available to those on vocational courses as well.

What we can categorically say is that no one will be "lifted out of tax" as has been suggested by raising the personal tax allowance. Raising this threshold will lift people out of income tax, it does not include the huge amounts of their income they currently pay on VAT, council tax and other taxes. For the very poorest, who already pay no income tax, raising this threshold has absolutely no further benefit.

Among all this, there is the worrying feeling that all parties have once again largely shunted inequality off the table. Do any of the parties have a clear strategy for its reduction? Everyone else is well aware of how much inequality is hurting society and damaging our economy.

The CBI has echoed IMF evidence on the damage inequality inflicts on long term growth, and even the world’s richest man has expressed fears that extreme inequality "undercut[s] the ideal that all people are created equal" and advocates a role for government in offsetting its effects.

Rupert Murdoch weighed in at the G20 with his thoughts, joining Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as members of the super-rich voicing concerns about economic polarisation. It is not only national minimum wage workers championing inequality reduction.

Others outside of the political arena have made a concerted effort to see inequality discussed and debated, and to acknowledge growing public anger at its sheer scale. Channel 4 last month even ran two programmes exploring relative pay packets and the rising incomes of the richest.

Despite previous encouraging noises from politicians there is a danger that these conversations will slowly dissipate among decision makers. Though broad consensus seems to have been achieved that something must be done, it seems we are held back by a combination of reluctance and perceived inability to act. Partly this stems from the fact that inequality is a complex issue, making it difficult to control its many moving parts, but there is also the reality that many developments almost unanimously viewed as positive (like advances in technology) may ultimately contribute to the problem.

But there are reasonable, sensible policies to achieve a substantial reduction in inequality. We have recommended tangible policy proposals for example like the reinstatement of the 50p rate of income tax, a more progressive system of property taxation, and the adoption of worker’s on remuneration committees.

As many commentators have noted, delivering an Autumn Statement is a tricky balancing act requiring the appeasement of core voters and the wooing of those who are wavering. It’s tough enough to deliver when the public coffers are swelled; it’s devilishly hard when they’re not quite so flush. This is true of course for all politicians at all times. But inequality is now a genuine potential vote winner, with 80 per cent of people agreeing the gap between rich and poor is too great and 70 per cent believing it is government’s job to reduce it.

What we need, from all political parties, are policies that matter to us all, policies that make a measurable difference to the quality of life of us all. More than any "rabbit from the hat" we need political parties to commit to reducing inequality.

For this, an important first step would be for parties to commit to ensure the net result of their policies will be to reduce inequality, and for whichever political parties make up the next government to annually submit their policies to "inequality testing" by the OBR, to ensure that the net impact will be to reduce the gap between the richest and the rest of us. 

John Hood is media and communications manager at The Equality Trust

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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