On last night’s edition of Newsnight, Norman Lamont declared that while inequality “increased under Mrs Thatcher” it increased “much, much more” under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It’s a common claim but as the IFS graph below shows, it isn’t true. It was during the Thatcher years that inequality surged before stabilising under Major and rising slightly under Labour. Under a Conservative government, less committed to redistribution, the increase would almost certainly have been far worse (not least due to the global forces pulling the rich and poor apart).
Inequality in the UK 1979 to 2007-08
But Blair and Brown cannot be excused for their failure. Confronted by the widening gap between rich and poor, Blair would glibly remark that he didn’t go into politics “to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”. Gordon Brown was less intensely relaxed about the “filthy rich” but doubted whether it was possible to significantly reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative. By contrast, Ed Miliband declared in his speech at last year’s Labour conference, “I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters.” Whether he is able to fulfil his ambition of building a more equal society (assuming the voters give him a chance) will do much to determine whether he will prove to be a transformer in the mould of Thatcher or Labour’s Ted Heath.