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
Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle