Howard Reed finds that the impact of the coalition’s tax and benefit measures could end being as bad for inequality as the Thatcher government’s record. Turning the tide needs to be at the heart of Labour’s strategy for government
Concern about the extreme inequalities of incomes produced by capitalist societies has traditionally been a central component of left-of-centre politics, and the progressive taxation systems and redistributive welfare state put in place by the 1945 Attlee government was at least partly motivated by a desire to reduce inequalities. But how unequal is Britain now, 35 years after the Thatcher government and the end of the post-war consensus? What are the consequences of the current policies of the coalition government for inequality? And how much might impact on inequality might a Labour government expect to make if elected in 2015?
Inequality from 1961 to 2012
Inequality in the distribution of incomes is the result of a combination of two factors. One is the distribution of gross market incomes, ie income before taxes or transfer payments. The largest component of gross incomes is earnings, but the distribution of incomes from investments and (private) pensions, and property income, are also important. The other main factor determining the distribution of net income is the extent of redistribution by the government through the form of taxes and transfer payments (eg benefits, tax credits). Inequality can rise thanks to increasing dispersion of gross incomes, a reduction in the extent of redistribution, or both. Thanks to household surveys conducted on an annual basis from 1961 to the present day, we now have around half a century of data on the UK income distribution on a reasonably consistent basis. Figure 1 is based on analysis of this data by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and shows the evolution of inequality in disposable income since 1961. The measure of disposable income used is net household income before housing costs, adjusted for family size. The figures go up to the 2011-12 tax year which are the most recent figures currently available.
The measure of inequality used is the Gini coefficient, which is a number between 0 and 1 showing the extent of inequality in a distribution of incomes. A Gini of 0 would correspond to a situation where every household had the same net income, whereas a Gini of 1 would correspond to a situation where one household had all the income and the rest had nothing. Hence, the higher the Gini is, the greater is inequality in incomes. The figures are for Great Britain (including England, Scotland and Wales but excluding Northern Ireland) because the Family Expenditure Survey, which was the survey used to measure incomes until 1992, did not cover Northern Ireland but data for the whole UK from 1993 onwards using the Family Resources Survey (which does cover Northern Ireland) show a very similar picture.
Figure 1. Inequality of household incomes Before Housing Costs, 1961 to 2011/12
Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies, http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn19figs.xlsx
Broadly speaking, the evolution of inequality in Britain over the past 60 years comprises three distinct phases:
- Between 1961 and the late 1970s, inequality was roughly stable, with a Gini coefficient in the range 0.24 to 0.27.
- Inequality rose consistently from 1979 onwards, with the Gini moving above 0.27 in 1985. By 1990, the Gini had reached 0.34 – a rise of 0.07 in just five years. The 1980s were a period of persistent rises in inequality.
- From 1990 onwards, inequality stabilised at a Gini of around 0.33 to 0.36 and has remained at that level until the present day.
In terms of the relationship between inequality and UK politics, it looks like the period of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (1979-90) was very different from Labour or Conservative governments before or after it. Mrs Thatcher’s tenure in Downing Street coincided with a massive increase in inequality of household incomes in the UK. What caused this rise in inequality? Research by Stuart Adam and James Browne of the IFS shows that between 1978 and 2008, reforms to the tax and benefit system increased the Gini by around 0.034 compared with a situation in which the 1978-9 tax system had been kept in place and uprated according to the uprating rules in place at that time. This increase in inequality appears to result mainly from two reforms undertaken by the Thatcher government: firstly, the reduction in income tax rates, with the top rate of income tax falling from 83 per cent in 1979 to 40 per cent in 1988; and secondly the decision to uprate means-tested benefits in line with price inflation rather than earnings, which (given that this was a period where average earnings were growing by about 2 per cent above inflation every year) meant that incomes for poorer families who were dependent on benefits for a large proportion, or all, of their net income lagged behind working families.
Thus, changes to taxes and benefits under the Thatcher government account for around half the overall increase in inequality seen between 1978 and 2008. The rest of the increase in inequality can largely be explained by two factors: firstly, increasing dispersion of earnings, with growth in earnings for top earners far outpacing average or low earners; and secondly a shift in the distribution of national income from wages to profits (income from profits is far more unequally distributed than income from wages).
The record of the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 on inequality is also worth commenting on here. New Labour was much more concerned with reducing poverty, and child and pensioner poverty in particular, than with reducing inequality per se. However, there is an obvious link between poverty and inequality in that redistribution via the tax and benefit system from richer households to poorer households – aiming to reduce poverty by increasing the net incomes of the poorest families – will tend to reduce overall inequality in net incomes as a by-product. Overall, the IFS research by Adam and Browne shows that New Labour made the tax-benefit system more redistributive (as a result of increased benefit payments for poorer pensioners and tax credits for low-income families with children). However, inequality in gross incomes continued to increase over this period. Overall, the two effects more or less cancelled each other out, meaning that inequality in 2010 was almost unchanged from its 1997 level.
The impact of coalition government policies on inequality
Figure 2 presents a breakdown of the distributional effects of most of the reforms made to the tax, benefit and tax credit system over the course of the current parliament using a tax-benefit micro-simulation model constructed by Landman Economics for the Institute for Public Policy Research. The analysis divides families in the UK income distribution into ten equally sized deciles ranging from decile 1 (the poorest) to decile 10 (the richest). The line in the graph shows the overall impact of reforms to the tax, benefit and tax credit systems as a percentage of disposable income, averaged across all families in each decile. Overall, the reforms introduced by the coalition are regressive across most of the distribution – the poorest families lose over 12 percent of their net income on average, compared with only around 3 percent of net income for families in the ninth decile. At the very top, the reforms are slightly progressive, with the top decile losing a slightly higher percentage of their income than the ninth decile; this is mainly due to increases in national insurance contributions and below-inflation increases in the higher rate income tax threshold.
The main factor driving the regressiveness of tax and benefit reforms between 2010 and 2015 is cuts to benefits and tax credits, particularly for working age families with children. The generosity of working tax credit, in particular, was cut back severely over this period. Furthermore, the uprating regime for working age benefits and tax credits has been changed from the retail price index (RPI) to the consumer prices index (CPI), and as annual CPI increases are typically smaller than RPI, this means that households reliant on benefits and tax credits lose out increasingly as time goes on. The decision in the 2012 Autumn Statement to limit working age benefit and tax credit increases to 1 per cent in nominal terms – well below CPI inflation – exacerbates the regressiveness of the reforms to social security. Meanwhile, coalition reforms to income tax and national insurance contributions during this time – principally the above-inflation increases in the income tax personal allowance and the lower thresholds for national insurance contributions – help families in the middle of the income distribution more than the poorest families, most of whom were not earning enough to pay income tax or national insurance in the first place.
Figure 2. Impact of Coalition Tax and Social Security Reforms introduced in 2010-15 Parliament, by income decile
Source: author’s own calculations using IPPR/Landman Economics tax-benefit model and Family Resources Survey data for 2010-11
The impact of the total package of tax and benefit reforms between 2010 and 2015 is to increase the Gini by 0.018 points – more than half as much again as the total increase in the Gini which arose from tax and benefit reforms over the period 1978 to 2008. There are additional reforms that it is not possible to model due to insufficient data on benefit claimants in the UK Family Resources Survey (such as many of the changes to housing benefit, and the replacement of disability living allowance by the personal independence payment). However, if they were added in to Figure 2, it is quite possible that the impact of the coalition’s tax and benefit measures would be as bad for inequality as the Thatcher government’s record, despite the fact that by 2015, David Cameron will have been prime minister for less than half the duration that Margaret Thatcher was. Looked at in this way, the coalition government’s tax and benefit reforms are like a speeded-up action replay of Thatcherism. This may come as a particular shock to Liberal Democrats in the government, many of whom spent the 1980s railing against the kind of increase in inequality which I forecast to occur as a direct result of policies introduced in this parliament.
The actual increase in inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, over the period 2010 to 2015 is likely to be more than 0.018 because of the continuation of the trends which contributed to increased inequality in gross earnings between 1980 and 2010. While earnings at the top of the distribution are continuing to increase, real wages for low-to-middle earners have been falling behind inflation for at least the last five years. And the most recent available data shows the share of wages in national income continuing to fall, to 53.7 per cent of GDP in 2011 (down from 59.2 per cent in 1980).
Reducing inequality in the future
How should a future Labour government respond to these trends? Discussion of the role tax and benefit measures to reduce inequality – or even to reduce poverty – after 2015 (should Labour emerge victorious at the next election) has not figured highly in policy discussions over the last three years. To a large extent, Labour seems to have bought into the argument of the right-wing media – trumpeted loudly by coalition politicians – that redistribution through the welfare state became increasingly unaffordable under New Labour. This is despite the fact that in 2007-08 – the last year before the Great Recession – total spending on benefits and tax credits as a share of gross domestic product was 11.4 per cent, compared with 11.9 per cent in 1996-97, just before Labour came to office.
But with the Labour leadership seemingly insistent that the poor state of the public finances rules out further action to reduce inequality through the tax and benefit system, attention has shifted to what the political scientist Jacob Hacker has called ‘predistribution’ – measures to make the distribution of gross market incomes more equal, thus reducing the pressure on the tax and social security systems to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of reducing inequality. This would be a big change in policy away from the New Labour years, where the market was more or less left to ‘let rip’ in delivering increasing inequalities in gross earnings and investment incomes, with the tax and social security systems having to do more and more redistribution to hold after-tax inequality constant.
There are several policy options for more equal predistribution of earnings, mostly focusing around changes in wage determination, bargaining structures and trade union representation, particularly in private sector industries and services, as well as upgrading skills and improving employment and job progression opportunities for the lowest paid.
But while measures to equalise the distribution of gross earnings would be most welcome, they would work best in conjunction with a more redistributive tax and benefit system, rather than one being a substitute for the other. Many features of the current tax and benefit system are needlessly regressive; for example, council tax, which on average charges low-to-middle income households a much higher percentage of their disposable income than the richest households. There is plenty of scope for major reforms of the UK’s tax and social security systems to increase their progressiveness and reduce net income inequality, at the same time as simplifying the system and raising more money to help balance the public finances.
At the same time, a lot of the inequality in incomes from investments is a function of vast inequalities of wealth and assets and therefore it would be necessary to redistribute wealth – perhaps via radical measures such as land value taxation – to equalise the distribution of investment income significantly.
Whichever set of policies Labour chooses in 2015, it will be important for inequality reduction to be at the heart of the party’s strategy for government. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their book The Spirit Level, there are clear links between lower inequality and a range of better social outcomes (eg lower crime, increased levels of trust in society, and greater social mobility). For Labour to enter government with a mindset that inequality doesn’t matter would be a serious mistake. Instead, it is to be hoped that despite the difficult economic circumstances which the next Labour government is likely to inherit, they can nonetheless place a clear focus on getting UK income inequality down to the levels which prevailed before the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s.
 Prior to 1993 the annual surveys used to obtain data on the income distribution were conducted in calendar years; from 1993-94 onwards they changed to fiscal years.
 Stuart Adam and James Browne, Redistribution, Work Incentives and Thirty Years of Tax and Benefit Reform, IFS Working Paper 10/24. http://socialwelfare.bl.uk/subject-areas/services-activity/poverty-benefits/instituteforfiscalstudies/132531wp1024.pdf
 Both these trends, and the reasons behind them, are examined in more detail in Jacob Mohun Himmelweit and Howard Reed, Where Have All The Wages Gone? Lost Pay and Profits Outside Financial Services, TUC, 2012. http://www.tuc.org.uk/tucfiles/466.pdf
 Source: IFS analysis of benefit and tax credit spending as a proportion of GDP. http://www.ifs.org.uk/ff/ben_spend.xls
 For more discussion of how to reduce gross earnings inequality see Stewart Lansley and Howard Reed, How To Boost The Wage Share, TUC, 2013.
 The bare bones of such a reform package are Richard Murphy and Howard Reed, Financing the Welfare State: Towards a Full Employment Economy, Centre for Labour and Social Studies, 2013. http://socialwelfare.bl.uk/subject-areas/services-activity/employment/centreforlabourandsocialstudies/1464492013_Policy_Paper_-_Richard_Murphy__Howard_Reed_(Social_State_-_Idleness.pdf
 Several options for introducing a wealth tax in the UK are looked at in Kayte Lawton and Howard Reed, Property and Wealth Taxes in the UK: The Context for Reform. Institute for Public Policy Research, 2013. http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/10503/property-and-wealth-taxes-in-the-uk-the-context-for-reform