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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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