Ed Miliband gives a speech in the final days of his election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How do you solve a problem like inequality?

A new book suggests how the struggle against inequality might survive the defeat of Ed Miliband. 

Anthony Atkinson’s new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, is an effort to keep the issue of inequality on the agenda of politicians, economists, and citizens alike.  This is an important academic contribution to the debate, especially timely in light of Ed Miliband’s statement in his resignation speech on 9 May that “the issue of our unequal country will not go away” following the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2015 UK election. 

Atkinson has been described in recent reviews of his new book as Thomas Piketty’s role model, but he deserves to be discussed in his own terms.  He has an inequality index named after him, and has pioneered the study of issues of inequality and poverty within economics.  He has been mentioned on multiple occasions as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Inequality: What Can Be Done? is explicitly solutions-oriented, as the title suggests.  It begins with a diagnosis in Part I of the current economic context and an overview of the approach to inequality in economics.  In Part II attention turns to specific policy proposals, relating to competition law, the changing nature of work, taxation, and other areas.  Part III addresses common objections to such policy proposals – the argument that the proposals might be inefficient, the view that globalization prevents proactive government measures, and the notion that the proposals are unaffordable. 

In style, the book seems to be written for an informed general audience.  At times, it is a little technical: it dives early on into an explanation of household equivalised disposable income, and in chapter 2 talks about ways inequality can be measured – including through household surveys, income tax data, and data on earnings.  But generally, the language is lucid and the chapters are put together well, with summings-up and italicized policy prescriptions allowing readers to be clear about the points to take away from the book.

Substantively, the book offers a number of original policy suggestions.  Atkinson argues, for example, that the rise of technology is not inevitable, and is a product of policy choices; in this context, he says that the State should carefully consider the benefits of technological innovation against the costs of reduced “human contact” and unemployment.  In another unorthodox proposal in the same chapter, he calls for competition policy to be understood as being concerned less with efficiency and more with inequality – since profits from market power affect overall distribution.  He also recommends, amongst other things, the creation of a Social and Economic Council (which might represent trade unions, employers and others); guaranteed public employment; a top tax rate of 65% (a rate that Atkinson says may well be the optimal rate); a substantial child benefit for all children; and a participation income (a form of basic income). 

Atkinson admits to the solutions being UK-focused, but hopes that they might spur debate in other countries, too.  Some commentators might argue that Atkinson is old-fashioned in approach, in calling for high taxes and a return to union power.  But these proposals emerge after nuanced discussion by Atkinson of the present-day context, and the changing nature of work, business, and government.  Atkinson is plainly not out of touch with contemporary societal developments.

Atkinson’s reasoning throughout the book, in support of these proposals and arguments, is for the most part compelling.  At times he is a little shorthand in the reasons he gives, perhaps because the book is a summary of much of his life’s work.  (He also uses sources that some scholars might frown upon, quoting Wikipedia and working papers that have not been peer reviewed.) But he raises relatively fresh lines of argument: for example, he argues that globalization is not new, and that therefore the limited policy space for governments is not a novel challenge.  And his mastery of detail and comfort with costings mean that his proposals seem not only imaginative but also practically feasible. 

A further merit of the book’s reasoning is that it responds to criticisms of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, such as the claim that Piketty ignores consumption or the view that Piketty gives insufficient weight to declines in global inequality.  Atkinson’s book therefore develops and deepens the debate about Piketty’s findings, inviting the critics of Piketty to respond.

Atkinson ends the book with a plea for “political leadership”, a call for action to be taken across government to address inequality, and a note that the book has been written “in a positive spirit” – with the belief that there are “grounds for optimism”. 

Does the resounding defeat of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in the election, despite considerable focus in the election on inequality, undermine Atkinson’s optimism?

The election results certainly make it less likely that some of Atkinson’s bolder proposals will be adopted in the short-term.  However, inequality is now an issue that political parties, on all parts of the ideological spectrum, cannot dismiss.  And that is partly because of the work of academics such as Thomas Piketty and Anthony Atkinson. 

The books by Piketty and Atkinson have prompted renewed attention to matters of economic distribution, and have strengthened a public movement that has put pressure on governments to tackle inequality.  That public movement needs to keep growing, as the election results in the UK demonstrate.  But Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? deserves credit for contributing considerable intellectual resources to that important struggle.

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.