How can it be wrong to raise taxes on middle-class workers but acceptable to cut benefits and squeeze working-class wages?
“Iam not sure if it is class war exactly, but something very like it is back,” Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, recently cautioned in the Spectator. Labour will “sting” those earning £80,000 a year, as well as introduce a “dizzying array” of increased levies on profits, assets and financial trading, he noted. Others have gone further. The Daily Mail has suggested Jeremy Corbyn wants to “go to war on property ownership and indeed the middle-class way of life as we know it”.
“Class war” as a term refers to the tension that exists in society among different social classes as a response to the socioeconomic arrangement of power and resources. But for some, it only ever appears to go in one direction. No one cried class war when universal credit claimants were left to live on £6 a day. No one accused ministers of class politics when homelessness spread through the streets. When the Resolution Foundation warned this week that re-electing Boris Johnson would risk child poverty rising to a 60-year high, the Conservative manifesto wasn’t seen to be creating class conflict.
Even as Labour’s critics were decrying moderate tax rises for the highest earners, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published updated analysis that showed what low-income families have faced over the last decade. It showed reforms to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been firmly tilted against the poorest 10% of households with children, who have seen losses of up to 18% of their income (£3,800), while the most affluent 10% have seen losses of just 4% (£2,200 per year). It’s worth saying that again: as a result of political choices over the last decade, the poorest families with kids have had a fifth of their income removed.
Forget class war “coming back”. It’s already here – except rather than it being characterised by a sudden raid on the richest, it’s been a long-term assault on the poorest. Or in the words of Warren Buffett, speaking about the similar situation in the US: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
The tax system is riddled with loopholes available only to the well-off and big business, while the poorest households pay a greater proportion of their income in taxes than the richest. FTSE 100 chief executives earn an average of 242 times more than a minimum wage worker, and new research this week highlights that working-class graduates earn thousands less each year than their posher counterparts by the age of 25. Old Etonians such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg dominate positions of power, while comprehensive-educated kids are still shut out of the country’s top jobs. To highlight this undeniable truth is to invite accusations of “class politics” or “the politics of envy”: terms that conveniently prevent anyone from objecting to mass inequality, while protecting the economic model that makes it possible. Policies that marginally tilt the favour back in the interests of ordinary people are dismissed as class war, whereas a system that consistently pushes wealth and power to the few at the expense of the rest is simply seen as maintaining an anodyne status quo.
It is reflective of the hold such ideas have in British society that what are comparatively standard attempts to redress the balance away from the very richest are greeted with hysteria, whereas the poorest can consistently be dealt inhumane treatment and it is accepted as just one of those things. Listen to Priti Patel, who last week when confronted with news of soaring child poverty claimed it was “not the government’s fault”. The same people that balk at the idea that government has a role in redistributing income from the wealthiest are quite at home suggesting it has no responsibility towards the poorest. It is supposedly a threat to “the middle-class way of life” to introduce marginal tax rises on high earners or put more rights in the hands of workers, but apparently completely fine when benefit cuts and squeezed wages push the working class into destitution. That these ideas are propagated by a political and media class still by and large made up of the richest section of society is no coincidence.
Those who are panicking at the thought of Labour’s proposals may wish to ask themselves a question: why exactly does it seem obscene to take a little from those with so much, but natural to take so much from those with barely anything? In the end, what feels like class war to some is just equality to everyone else.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist