Inequality is spiraling because our democracy is broken
The UK is in the middle of a democratic crisis. Why? Too much power is in the hands of too few people. Those with power - the richest, the financiers, the corporations - are using their wealth and resources to rig the political system so that it works for them, and only them. Money is pumping through the veins of our politics, distorting our democracy so that for many, the system just simply isn’t working for them.
Democracy is not just about elections. For British people, expectations of democracy are deeply wrapped up in a sense of fairness. The public doesn’t just want free and fair elections, for their rights to be protected, and for the rule of law to be upheld. For most Brits, a democratic government has a duty to look after citizens, and that means a responsibility to cut poverty and income inequality - 58% of the public thinks it’s ‘extremely important’ that governments protect citizens against poverty.
Our current political system could not be further from meeting these expectations. The UK is an increasingly unfair and unequal society. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pointed out that UK is unequal by international standards, with one of the highest levels of inequality in Europe. Since the 1980s, household earnings inequality has shot up. This has been paired with a rise in ‘death of despair’ (suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol related-liver disease) among middle-aged people in England. The gap in life expectancy between rich and poor is widening, while child-poverty is rising and is expected to hit a record high by 2023, while poverty among pensioners is also rising. Those in work are finding their paychecks are stretching thin, with in-work poverty now rising faster than employment. Life chances are increasingly determined by your family’s wealth rather than your talents, and it is no wonder that young people are “deeply pessimistic” about their life chances when social mobility is “virtually stagnant”, according to the government’s own social mobility commission.
A decade of successive governments decimating welfare support and public services through state shrinking and cuts to public services has wreaked havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable. After visiting the UK, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, concluded that “poverty is a political choice”:
“Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”
Decades of improvements to our lives has been brought to an end. It has been caused directly by the policies of a government with a duty to look after citizens. And let’s get one thing clear: this is not an accident.
The wealthiest have been using their money to distort democracy so that it works in their interests, and their interests alone. One way they do this is by giving money to political parties. Research by the Labour Party found that ultra-wealthy hedge fund tycoons have put a staggering £2.9million into the Conservative Party’s pockets since the start of the 2017 general election campaign.
The rich dig deep into their pockets to put pressure on political parties because guess what, it works! If you’re a member of the wealthy elite things have never looked so rosy. The incomes of the richest 1% have ‘runaway’, nearly tripling in the last four decades. The average FTSE100 CEO now earns 145 times more than the average worker, which has increased from 47 times more in 1988. Analysis by The Equality Trust found that in just one year (2018-19) the richest 1,000 people increased their wealth by £47.8bn, and in the last five years that has been a £253bn growth. The decimation of the welfare state and public services has directly bank rolled tax cuts for the richest. The 2019 tax changes will disproportionately put money into the pockets of the richest households, with those on the highest income expected to gain four times as much as base-rate taxpayers. This is what Philip Alston meant when he called poverty a “political choice”.
It’s not an accident that the people who are stuffing money into the pockets of political parties are getting the best deal. Our current political system has created a pay-to-play democracy that benefits the political establishment as well as the rich. The Conservative Party’s Donor Clubs, for example, offer up private influencing opportunities with the highest members of government - including the Chancellor and the Prime Minister - for tens of thousands of pounds. The wealthiest stuff the pockets of political parties so they can distort democracy in their favour, which means more power and more money, which means they can exert more and more influence to get more and more of what they want. On and on the cycle goes.
People have, of course, cottoned on to Britain's pay-to-play politics. The Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Political Engagement found that 50% of the public doesn’t think that the main parties and politicians care about people like them. The Audit also found that 63% of the public thinks the system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. Edeleman’s 2019 Trust Barometer similarly found 6 in 10 Britons believe the government doesn’t listen to “people like them”. When political parties take donations from hedge fund millionaires and billionaires, they confirm what many of the public suspect already - that in our democracy, your say is based on the size of your bank account.
Something is seriously wrong in British politics. The political system is only working to make the lives of the wealthiest better, and that is being shouldered by the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. A political system that is only working for the richest elite is not a democracy, it’s a plutocracy. So long as money is being pumped through the veins of our political system then the direction of our country is going to be decided by the highest bidder.
The UK does need an overhaul of political financing. But we need to go much further than just tinkering with some broken rules; we need to overhaul democracy altogether. We need to take power away from the wealthiest elite who are running amok and give it to the people as part of a citizen-led constitutional convention. The people, not the wealthiest elite, must own and define their democracy, once and for all.
Inequalities in the twenty-first century (2019), The Institute for Fiscal Studies
A Nation of Ferraris and Foodbanks - UK Rich Increase Wealth by £253 Billion Over Five Years (2019) The Equality Trust
Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom (2018), by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights