Five million dollars in cash. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Leader: The 1 per cent and the masses

The thesis developed by Capital author Thomas Piketty is set to be vindicated, with the most prominent critiques of inequality now economic.

Based on current trends, as research by Oxfam has found, a remarkable new threshold will be passed next year: the richest 1 per cent will own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth. The corollary is worth stating: the remaining 99 per cent will own less than half.

Inequality fell immediately after the 2008 financial crisis as incomes at the top and in the middle declined more sharply than those at the bottom (the poor having less to lose and being partly insulated by social security). But it has risen since, as quantitative easing has inflated asset prices, fiscal austerity has eroded welfare benefits and wages have remained depressed. The thesis developed by the French economist Thomas Piketty – that the gap will widen as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of the economy – appears destined for vindication.

The usual objections to inequality are moral. For Karl Marx, it represented the corrosion of our common humanity and the denial to workers of the products of their labour. For John Rawls, a society that did not redound to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged was one that no rational, self-interested individual would accept unless he or she was behind a “veil of ignorance”.

But the most prominent critiques of inequality are now economic. From the IMF, the OECD and the Bank of England, the message has gone out that the wealth gap is bad for growth. The uneven distribution of rewards threatens economic stability (as the poor are forced to borrow to maintain their living standards), reduces productivity and undermines social mobility. A recent study from the OECD estimated that the UK economy would be roughly 20 per cent larger if the gap between the rich and the poor had not become a chasm in the 1980s. It found that “income inequality has a sizeable and statistically negative impact on growth” and that “redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income have no adverse growth consequences”.

It is this that explains why a subject once regarded as a leftist talking point again features on the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with 14 measures proposed to narrow the gap. Among them are more progressive systems
of taxation, increased trade union membership, higher minimum wages and greater investment in public services. Such remedies would once have appeared banal, but in the post-Thatcherite landscape they can seem daringly radical. The very legitimacy of the state as an economic actor is a belief that has to be fought for.

In the years since the crash, governments have focused on the immediate task of ensuring macroeconomic stability by repairing banking systems and reducing fiscal deficits. But as recovery takes hold, most notably in the US and the UK, it is right to ask more profound questions about the shape of modern capitalism. Rather than the trickle-down economics of recent decades, global leaders need to rediscover the virtues of Keynesian “trickle-up”. By increasing the disposable incomes of the poorest, governments and businesses will help to generate the growth on which capitalism depends. It is time for states not merely to listen but to act.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.