Inequality in Britain

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 2:19

About 50 per cent of the population identify as “working class”. Despite the term ‘working class’ vanishing completely from the official language of the Labour Party, the proportion claiming this now-unspoken identity has been fairly stable since the 1950s.

To be working class is to be at one pole of a pair. The other pole is the capitalist class. There are many middling groups, but the two main poles are clear. Most of us sell our labour-power to capital (or try to), and receive in exchange a more-or-less “living wage”. At the other pole is a small group of bosses and elite officials who live from property income (shares, interest, etc) or from high salaries which they allot themselves. They accumulate wealth. That core class division defines capitalism.

In Britain, inequality of wealth and income has grown since Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government took office 38 years ago. This inequality has increased further under New Labour, though not as fast as under the Tories. The top 1% increased their share of national wealth from 20% to 23% in the first six years of the Labour government.

In 1999, company bosses pocketed on average 47 times as much as workers. By 2009 they took 128 times as much.

Tories and New Labourites claim that equality is impossible, but we do have “equal opportunity”, or could have it with a few more commissions, investigations, regulations, and mission statements. Barrow-boys become bankers, as long as they have the wit and the energy. If you fall behind, it’s because you’re idle or stupid.

Actually, Britain is at the bottom of the league for social mobility, among the richer countries — along with the USA, another country where free-market economics and union-bashing have been unleashed with exceptional force. In Britain, if A’s dad has twice the income of B, then A is likely to end up with 40% more income than B.

And social mobility is getting less. Born in 1958 into a family in the bottom quarter of income-earners, you had a 17% chance of getting into the top quarter by the age of 30. Born in 1970, your chance was down to 11%.

Kids from poorer families lose out just because they are poorer.

Thirty years ago poorer men died 5.5 years before the well-off; now the gap is 7.5 years. The gap has grown despite improvements in housing and food availability, and despite a decline in heavy manual work.

Evidence is conclusive: poorer people are more stressed and less healthy because they are unequal, not just because they are poor. Being part of an exploited class is bad for your health.

An unequal society is unhealthier and unhappier even for the modestly well-off than an equal society.

No socialist proposes some artificially complete equality, still less uniformity. Socialism means greater freedom, and a flowering of individual freedom released from the compulsion on the majority to put most of our energy and majority into work shaped and organised so as to maximise the profits of the wealthy minority.

But equal access for all to decent food, housing, education, culture, and leisure is possible.

Immediately, the labour movement needs to fight to push up the minimum wage, to expand public services, to enforce a big expansion of council housing, and to tax the rich.

New Labour leaders claim, truly, that their changes in the tax and benefit system have somewhat favoured the worse-off. But the capitalist system has its own inbuilt mechanisms to increase inequality despite such changes.

Over the last 13 years, those inbuilt trends to inequality have far outpaced New Labour’s little tinkerings.

Peter Mandelson famously said in 1998 that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. The fact is, some people getting filthy rich means other people getting filthier poor, and society getting filthy unequal.

To deal with the issue fundamentally we have to go beyond taxing the rich. The labour movement should fight for a workers’ government which will take the whole of high finance into public ownership, under democratic control, as a public banking, mortage, and pension service. The big corporations should be nationalised and run under workers’ control. Democratic socialist planning should replace the free run of the market.

Women's equality

On the latest figures, women’s average hourly pay is still 20.2 per cent less than men’s. The pay gap is bigger in the private sector, but the New Labour government has rejected union calls to make mandatory equal-pay audits compulsory

The Government insists (despite union demands) that money for equal pay in public-service jobs must be found from existing NHS, Local Authorities and other public sector bodies’ budgets. Thus, divisive deals have been agreed in many areas, with the claims of women workers being set against male workers who then suffer pay cuts

Women still bear most of the burden of housework and childcare. The New Labour government introduced a right to some pre-school care for all three and four year olds. But nursery provision for under-threes remains scarce and usually expensive

And the public provision for three and four year olds is now being cut. “Thousands of children in some of the most deprived parts of the country will have their nursery provision cut by half, despite the Government’s decision to delay an overhaul of early-years funding

“Local authorities, including Birmingham and Newcastle, plan to cut free education in nursery schools to just 15 hours a week”. (Times Educational Supplement, 12/02/10)

The average employed woman living with an employed male partner does 15 hours a week of housework. The average male in two-jobs household does only five. Some of that inequality is due to traditional prejudices that no government could fix rapidly, but those prejudices are kept in place by the economic structures which channel women into part-time and lower-paid jobs

Women head nine out of ten one-parent families, and these women are facing new pressures under New Labour welfare “reforms”. Measures introduced in November 2008 will gradually erode the length of time lone parents can claim income support. By 2011 most will only be able to claim until their youngest child’s seventh birthday — nine years less than the current entitlement

Single parents with children as young as one will be required to go on training courses and work experience.

Cuts will make all this worse. Obvious targets for the Tories are child tax credit and working families tax credit, on which many worse-off women depend.

Conservative leader David Cameron has said he will back a cut in the legal time limit for abortion. This cut is supposed to be justified on grounds of improvement in medical science, but doctors oppose the cut. The practical result of the cut would be to deny abortion rights to some women who wouldn’t get the doctors’ say-so until it was impossible to be absolutely sure that they were within the time limit.

Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox has advocated a “huge restriction if not abolition” of abortion. Of Tory candidates in the target seats which the Tories have to win to get a majority, more than 83 per cent say they want the abortion time-limit cut.

See here for "New Labour, inequality and class"

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