Ed Miliband: On Inequality

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May I start by thanking the Chancellor for his gracious words about me in his speech? It is an achievement to survive five years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and, indeed, to be reappointed, and I congratulate him on that.

I rise to speak from the Back Benches for the first time in nine years. I do so obviously deeply disappointed at Labour’s election defeat, for which I take full responsibility. I believe it is right that my party comprehensively examines the reasons for that defeat and does the hard and painful thinking necessary. On the day after the general election I rang the Prime Minister to congratulate him. I said, as the Chancellor said in his speech, that he had defied the pollsters and the pundits—and indeed that is true. I repeat those congratulations to the Conservative party.

In the time since the general election, I can report to the House that I have found some small consolations of losing, including spending time with my two boys, who feel that they have their dad back. However, I confess that my eldest, who has just turned six, did bring me further down to earth last week. He suddenly turned to me out of the blue and said, “Dad, if there is a fire in our house, I think we’ll be okay.” I said, “Why’s that, Daniel?” He said, “Because if we ring the fire brigade they’ll recognise your name because you used to be famous.” “Thanks very much,” I said. From my used-to-be-famous position on the Back Benches, I look forward to helping to play my part in holding the Government to account, as it is the job of the Opposition to do, and the occasion of the Queen’s Speech is the right place to start.

Whatever our profound differences over the years, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment in the days after the election, and repeated in the Gracious Speech, to govern for one nation. I welcome this because it speaks in historical terms to what I see as an admirable side of Conservatism, represented by Disraeli and Macmillan. It is worth reminding ourselves of the historical lineage that suggests. This is what Disraeli said in his novel “Sybil, or The Two Nations”, published 170 years ago this year, about what he was fighting against:

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”.

For many people, that will sound like the description, in old-fashioned language, of some of what afflicts our country today: a divide between the top 1%, or even the top 0.1%, and everyone else. Facing up to that is a challenge for any Government of any colour, but particularly, if I may suggest, for one claiming the mantle of one nation.

A huge question facing all western democracies in the next five, 10, 20 years is whether we are comfortable with the huge disparities that exist, whether we are fated to have them and whether we want to even try to confront them. Personally, I believe we will have to, and I believe this is an issue for right and left.

What has changed in the debate about inequality is that, internationally and across the political spectrum, there is growing recognition that these gaps are not just bad for the poor, as we always used to believe, but bad for all of us. Last month, the OECD joined the International Monetary Fund in saying that inequality was definitively a problem. The secretary-general of the OECD said there was “compelling evidence that high inequality harms economic growth” and social mobility. Simply put, if the rungs of the ladder grow too far apart, it is much harder to climb them.

The old idea was that inequality was necessary for economic growth. In fact, we now know that the deep structural challenges in our economy of low productivity—which, to be fair, the Chancellor and, indeed, my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor referred to—are bound up with high inequality. More unequal societies tend to use the talents of fewer people, and they suffer as a result.

It is not just internationally that the debate has shifted, and I applaud those on the right—some of whom are sitting on the Government Benches—who have focused on this issue. I was intrigued the other day to hear Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, say that it was time to impose a maximum wage for the bankers. As you would expect from me, Mr Speaker, I see that proposal as anti-aspiration and anti-business, and I have no truck with it. [Laughter.] The serious point is that this issue will not go away and needs to be confronted.

I hope that we can move on—maybe the Government’s emphasis on one nation presages this—from discussing whether inequality is a problem to what the solutions are. There are not easy solutions in the context of a global economy, but progress can be made in the way we shape our economy and the way we approach tax and benefits. As a starting point, I urge the Government and the Chancellor, in the spirit of one nation, to look at the OECD recommendations—not just those about the pursuit of equal opportunity and skills, but those about tackling insecure work in our economy, which it specifically identifies as part of the problem, and progressive taxation, which it says is part of the answer. Perhaps that will all be in a one nation Budget in July. I wait with interest.

Within the profound and growing challenge of inequality lies the specific problem of in-work poverty. I would say that it is the modern scourge of our time. For the first time, as many people in Britain who are in poverty are in work as out of work. I believe that the left and right can agree that it should be a basic principle that if you go out to work, you should not be living in poverty. But we are very far from that in Britain today.

The minimum wage has played its part in countering the worst exploitation, but I believe it needs to do more. In Doncaster, which I represent, 28% of men and more than a third of women workers are paid less than the living wage of £7.65 an hour. The UK is one of the low-pay capitals of Western Europe. There is an irony here: the Low Pay Commission is a great success, and indeed a lasting achievement, of the 1997 Labour Government—to be fair, the last Government continued to operate with the Low Pay Commission—but I fear that the way it operates has become too much a recipe for the lowest common denominator.

Countries around the world are confronting similar issues and seeking to act. There is a live debate in the United States about raising the minimum wage. Los Angeles has just passed a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from $9 an hour over five years. I say to the Chancellor that if we are to make progress here at home, it will require us to strengthen and guide the Low Pay Commission much more explicitly. That is something that its previous chair, George Bain, has called for. Without it, I do not believe it we will be equal to the challenge of low pay.

Just as one nation requires the right approach to those who work, so it requires the right approach to those who cannot. The origin of one nation for Disraeli was rooted in the lives of the rich and the poor. Responsibility is absolutely part of a successful welfare system, but so too is protection of the most vulnerable. We will never be one nation without a social security system that supports those who need it.

I think it would repay Ministers to read some of the early speeches by the Prime Minister when he became leader of the Conservative party. On the 25th anniversary of the Scarman report in 2006, he said:

“In the past we used to think of poverty in absolute terms—meaning straightforward material deprivation. That’s not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms—the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.”

He continued: “I want this message to go out loud and clear—the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”

That was seen as a radical departure from the tenets of Thatcherism, and it was. If the approach in the Queen’s Speech is indeed meant to be a return to the earlier incarnation of the Prime Minister’s approach, which I welcome, Ministers need to prove it and to square the circle with the Government’s proposals for deficit reduction.

Can one nation really be consistent with making those on welfare shoulder £12 billion of the burden for deficit reduction and those at the top nothing at all? Can one nation really be squared with cuts to tax credits, with their impact on working people? Can one nation be squared with a welfare system that is so often harsh, brutal and brutalising? Can one nation be squared with a country where a million people go to food banks? Those tests on inequality, low pay and a compassionate social security system are appropriate tests for a Government claiming the mantle of one nation. There are many more besides, including, of course, keeping our United Kingdom together.

Let me make this final point about the situation facing the Prime Minister. Fighting an election and winning is some achievement; how he seeks to use the mandate is what will really define his legacy. He is in an unusual position in that he has fought his last election. He is able, if he wishes, to return to what he said when he first became Leader of the Opposition and not worry about an election round the corner, with all the pressures that entails. I urge him, perhaps through the Chancellor, to follow through on his one nation rhetoric. Opposition Members will hold the Government to account at every turn for whether they are living up to their own test: one nation in spirit and deed. If that is where the battleground of politics lies in the years ahead, I welcome it and look forward to playing my part.

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Inequality speech by Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP on the Queens Speech debate in the UK Parliament

Thursday 4 June 2015