Welcome to Cabinetland: The worsening inequality between Britain's rich and poor is shameful

The economic divide in Britain, hastened and worsened by the north-south divide, is wider now than any time since the war, and it is getting worse. That income inequality became worse during the boom is deeply regrettable. But that this has continued into

At the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the session David Cameron was triumphant. “Britain is getting stronger,” he proclaimed. Labour MPs, with caseloads filled with vulnerable people seeing their standard of living collapsing, were incredulous.

As the Coalition moves into its fourth year, the gap between the government and the opposition has widened to more than politics. Increasingly, the two opposing benches reflect two entirely different countries.

In one of these countries, unemployment is 2.6 per cent. The number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance is down over nine per cent on last year. Youth unemployment has plummeted by 19 per cent in the last 12 months, and even over-50s unemployment is down. Each constituency has just 300 people unemployed for longer than twelve months.

These are the average figures for the 21 MPs who are full Cabinet members.

In the other country, there are no Tory MPs. Unemployment is 13 per cent. Every constituency has over 6,000 people looking for work. A quarter of them are under 25. One in three of those people has been looking, fruitlessly, for over a year.

This is the typical situation in the ten constituencies worst affected by the economic incompetence of the Coalition. My own hometown of Middlesbrough, which I now have the honour of representing, is among them.

As David Cameron enlists the help of Barack Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina, it is perhaps worth looking at the message that handed the US President his only electoral defeat, that of the 2010 midterm elections. The message, repeated ad infinitum by the Republicans, was simple. “Where are the jobs?”

The claim from the Coalition is that “There are more people in work than ever before”. This claim is emblematic of the torturing of figures this government has been pulled up on repeatedly by the UK Statistics Authority. There are more people in work than ever before because Britain has more people than ever before. But the number of people unemployed is higher than it was in 2010. The rate, 7.8 per cent nationally, is unchanged since the Coalition came to power.

Despite herding people onto unpaid workfare schemes and counting that as a job.

Despite freezing the minimum wage for young people at a time of high inflation, cheapening their labour.

Despite a million people on zero hours contracts, unsure of if they will be granted the right to work today.

Further, productivity has fallen. The output per hour of private-sector workers fell by almost four per cent in the year to October 2012, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Figures for the economy as a whole were not much better, with a 2.4 per cent decline in productivity over the year.

There are more people, working longer, in worse conditions to produce less value. Yet George Osborne has the nerve to crow about an ephemeral 0.8 per cent increase in GDP, in what is now the longest depression in British history.

Nothing has changed. For over three years this government has been treading water. It has done so with impunity, because the people it represents are doing fine. Your income is down, but the FTSE is up.

The targeting of the government resources echoes this twisted view. In response to the chronic household shortage in the UK, the government could have announced a mass house building programme. This would simultaneously have generated jobs for skilled and unskilled labour, in a construction industry still languishing at 14 per cent below capacity.

Instead we got George Osborne’s “Funding for Lending Scheme” (FLS). As of the end of March this year the scheme gifted £16.5bn of low interest loans to the banks. The effect? Mortgage rates have got cheaper, but primarily only on loans where those remortgaging or buying have at least 20 per cent equity in their home, or an equivalent deposit. The people the Chancellor thinks are really in need are those trying to buy a home with only fifty grand in the bank.

Universal credit will be “digital by default”, because who doesn’t have a computer? Benefit payments will be delayed an extra week, because who doesn’t have an overdraft? Legal aid will be cut because who doesn’t have a lawyer on retainer?

The economic divide in Britain, hastened and worsened by the north-south divide, is wider now than any time since the war, and it is getting worse. That income inequality became worse during the boom is deeply regrettable. But that this has continued into the bust is shameful. The average wage rise for those in work who don’t receive bonus payments is just one per cent, while inflation is more than double that. Meanwhile there was a sharp jump in bonus payments in the financial services sector in March this year: end-of-financial-year bonuses were 64 per cent higher than in March 2012.

Whether the blindness of the Coalition to the sufferings of ordinary people is deliberate or merely accidental does not matter. The compact between the richer and the poorer of Britain, Disraeli’s two nations, benefits us all. The deeply corrosive affect it has upon our society might start in Middlesbrough, or Birmingham Ladywood, or West Belfast, but the long term effects of inequality make life worse for everyone.

Andy McDonald is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough

William Hague and David Cameron. Photo: Getty
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.