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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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In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it's possible we haven't hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.