The two key words in politics this weekend are envy and aspiration as we run up to Wednesday’s Pre-Budget Report. This document will set the scene for the general election campaign to come and spell out the ground on which Labour will fight. We will hear much about punishing “The rich” and protecting “The poor”. We will have Tory toffs, bankers’ bonuses and spending cuts all conflated into a soufflé of Labour spin.
Gordon Brown, as ever looking for dividing lines, used the phrase “dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton” at PMQs (referring to Conservative plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold). It is all nonsense of course. The majority of our politicians are privileged by definition. This week blogger Working Class Tory listed the 60 Labour MPs that attended public schools and the 100 odd Labour MPs that went to grammar schools. Even these numbers are probably underestimates. They omit Brown himself who went to an elite school and lied about it, see here.
In the Sunday Times today they cover their YouGov poll of 2,000 people that has found that 52% of people think the Conservatives are still the party of the rich, against 31% who do not. Apparently 9 out of 10 Labour supporters and more than 72% of Liberal Democrat voters believe the party is still biased towards the better-off, against 14% of those who support the Tories.
The 52% are clearly not au fait with income distribution in this country. If you go to the relevant Department for Work and Pensions statistics you will find that 13% of households have income of less than £200 per week. 18% of households have and income of more than £1,000 per week. The Fat Middle (or 69%, more than two thirds) are just regular people. Not rich. Not poor. Coincidentally 69% is the level of home ownership in this country, figures here.
The Fat Middle drink in the same pubs, watch the same telly. They typically have jobs. Maybe those at the bottom drive second hand cars and those at the top go on long haul foreign holidays and ski trips rather summer packages to the costas. But these people all mix happily and don’t see the dividing lines that Brown so loves around them. Even then the figures probably understate the size of the Fat Middle because most of the rich are only rich for a small part of their lives. Similarly the poor are not a fixed rump even if the benefits trap does capture some. We all go through a lifecycle and spend our youth and our old age being relatively poor even if we manage to be rich-ish for twenty years from 30 to 50 say if we set up home with someone else.
If we think the rich are going to pay the bills we will be sorely disappointed. There simply aren’t enough of them. We did the experiment in the sixties and seventies. We taxed the rich and they invented luncheon vouchers and just about every scam you can imagine to avoid paying tax. When we reversed the experiment in the eighties the tax take actually went up as people figured they might as well pay 40% tax as try to avoid it.
Labour will major on the politics of envy over the next six months. The Tories need to keep the flame of aspiration alive. Most of us have a stake in the system and want to do better. We need to pull the underclass up towards us, not allow more and more people to be dragged down by the morale sapping lack of aspiration that Labour encourages to keep its benefits payroll vote up.