Reposted in full from The Guardian, 18 May 2011
Now comes a report this week from the High Pay Commission, set up by the Labour pressure group Compass. It reveals that FTSE 100 chief executives are on average paid £4.2m annually, or 145 times the median wage – and on current trends will be paid £8m, or 214 times the median, by 2020. In the financial sector, even the CEO can seem modestly rewarded: this year, the top-paid banker at Barclays will get £14m, nearly four times the chief executive's earnings and 1,128 times more than the lowest-paid employee receives.
Meanwhile, once inflation is taken into account, most people's incomes are set to fall, after 15 years of virtual stagnation. Between 1996-7 and 2007-8, the earnings of someone in the middle of the income distribution rose (1997 prices) from £16,000 to £17,100 – barely £100, or less than 0.7% a year. Even the increase for those quite near the top of the income scale, better off than 90% of their fellow citizens, was unspectacular. Their inflation-discounted pay crept up from £36,700 to £41,500, or less than £450 (1.2%) a year. The top 0.1% scooped the jackpot. They got a £19,000 pay rise every year, taking their incomes to £538,600, a gain of 67% over 11 years. The commission gives no figures for the top 0.01%, but we can be confident they did even better and dramatically so.
That is the most important point about what has happened to incomes in Britain and America during the neoliberal era: the very rich are soaring ahead, leaving behind not only manual workers – now a diminishing minority – but also the middle-class masses, including doctors, teachers, academics, solicitors, architects, Whitehall civil servants and, indeed, many CEOs who don't run FTSE 100 companies, to say nothing of the marketing, purchasing, personnel, sales and production executives below them. That is why, over the past decade, some of the most anguished cries about high incomes and inequality have appeared in the Telegraph and Mail.
The commission describes levels of top pay as an instance of "market failure" because most arguments used to defend it just don't stack up. For example, despite claims that pay levels are dictated by global competition, the majority of FTSE 100 CEOs are British, promoted from within their companies. Only one CEO has been poached in the past five years – by a British rival. But top pay also suggests political failure, particularly on the left. To put it crudely, why can't leftwing parties harness middle-class anger against the super-rich? Surveys show a substantial majority of the electorate agree that differences in income are too large and that ordinary people don't get a fair share. Only one in eight disagree. Why is this so difficult to translate into a political programme that could command mass support?
One reason why the working classes so often disappointed the left was that, having little daily contact with the rich and little knowledge of how they lived, they simply didn't think about inequality much, or regard the wealthy as direct competitors for resources. As the sociologist Garry Runciman observed: "Envy is a difficult emotion to sustain across a broad social distance." Nearly 50 years ago he found manual workers were less likely than non-manual workers to think other people were "noticeably better off". Even now most Britons underestimate the rewards of bankers and executives. Top pay has reached such levels that, rather like interstellar distances, what the figures mean is hard to grasp.
But the gap between the richest 1% or 2% and everybody else in the top 20% or 30% is now so great and growing so rapidly that, one might reasonably think, it should change the terms of political trade. The income distance may be huge but the social distance is not. Those in the top 2% and the next 28% have often been to the same schools and universities. More important, they compete for scarce resources: places in fee-charging schools, houses in the best areas, high-end personal services. The super-rich have provoked raging inflation in the prices of these goods. Many of the not-so-rich were born into the professional classes and high expectations. Now, to their surprise, they find themselves struggling. In income distribution, their interests are closer to those of the mass of the population than to people they once saw as their peers.
They are not, however, imminently likely to join a crusade for equality. This generation of the middle classes has internalised the values of individualist aspiration, as zealously propagated by Tony Blair as by Margaret Thatcher. It does not look to the application of social justice to improve its lot. It expects to rely on its own efforts to get ahead and, crucially, to maintain its position.
As psychologists will tell you, fear of loss is more powerful than the prospect of gain. The struggling middle classes look down more anxiously than they look up, particularly in recession and sluggish recovery. Polls show they dislike high income inequalities but are lukewarm about redistribution. They worry that they are unlikely to benefit and may even lose from it; and worse still, those below them will be pulled up sufficiently to threaten their status. This is exactly the mindset in the US, where individualist values are more deeply embedded. Americans accepted tax cuts for the rich with equanimity. Better to let the rich keep their money, they calculated, than to have it benefit economic and social inferiors.
As Runciman observed, "most people's lives are governed more by the resentment of narrow inequalities, the cultivation of modest ambitions and the preservation of small differentials" than by the larger picture of social justice. That applies as much to the professional as to the working classes.
But as the super-rich stretch further ahead, appropriating, with the assistance of a Conservative-led government, ever increasing proportions of national resources, Ed Miliband and Labour have the opportunity to build a new cross-class consensus for a more equal society. "The squeezed middle" may be a concept that lacks both precision and passion, but at least it shows Miliband is thinking along the right lines.'