The UK economy is flatlining, unemployment is rising and around 13.2 million people live below the poverty line. The prospects of building a sustainable economy remain distant. The common factor behind these grim statistics is that the purchasing power of ordinary people has been severely eroded and without adequate resources people cannot buy goods and services produced by businesses.
The UK gross domestic product (GDP) has increased from the 1976 figure of £621bn to around £1.5tn, but the share going to employees in the form of wages and salaries has declined. In 1976, the amount of wages and salaries paid to UK employees, expressed as a percentage of GDP, stood at 65.1%. By the end of 2011, it was around 54% (see table D of the Quarterly National Accounts). This rate of decline is unmatched in any other developed economy. With many people now facing wage freezes and loss of pension rights, the employees' share of national wealth is set to fall below 50% of GDP.
The above figures are not the whole story, because a disproportionately large slice of the shrinking cake has been taken by wealthy elites. A study by the Resolution Foundation noted that in 1977, for every £100 of GDP, employees in the bottom half of the earnings distribution received £16. But by 2010 it had fallen to £12, and after taking out bonuses their share declined to just £10. In contrast, the top 10% of earners increased their share from £12 per £100 of GDP to £14, and after taking account of bonuses, it rose to £16.
In principle, the state can boost the spending power of low and middle-income households through redistribution, but that possibility is constrained by the erosion of tax revenues. In 1981-82, tax revenues expressed as a percentage of GDP stood at 45.5%, but by 2011-12 they had declined to 37.8%.
So where has the national wealth gone? Well, it has been transferred from employees and the state to corporations and their controllers. In the mid-70s the average rate of profitability before interest and tax at current replacement cost stood at 3.9%. Now, despite one of the deepest recessions, it is still averaging around 11-12%.
The seeds of the disastrous position were primarily sown by the policies pursued in the 1980s and 90s. Mass unemployment and government-led attacks on trade unions severely eroded the ability of employees to maintain their share of national wealth. The current UK trade union density of 26.6% of employees is considerably less than 69.2% for Finland, 68.4% for Sweden, 66.6% for Denmark and 54.4% for Norway. Unlike Scandinavian countries, UK employees and unions are not permitted to elect directors and are excluded from corporate governance arrangements, therefore they have not been in a position to protect workers' share of national wealth.
The comparative demise of manufacturing has resulted in the disappearance of reasonably well-paid skilled and semi-skilled jobs. These have been replaced by less well-paid service-sector jobs. Privatisation and outsourcing of work has contributed to low wages.
Successive governments have appeased corporations and wealthy elites through tax cuts. The rate of corporation tax has declined from 52% of taxable profits in 1982 and will reach the lowest ever rate of 22% in April 2014. The top marginal rate of income tax has declined from 83%, plus a surcharge of 15% on investment income, in 1978-79, to 45%. Rather than effectively tackling organised tax avoidance, successive governments have shifted taxes to labour, consumption and savings, as evidenced by higher national insurance contributions, higher VAT and the failure of tax-free personal allowances and income tax bands to keep pace with inflation. The result is that households in the bottom 20% of income bracket pay 35.5% of their gross income in direct and indirect taxes, compared to 33.7% for the top 20% of households.
The massive transfer of wealth is camouflaged by government rhetoric on the need to rebuild the economy and control inflation. Here are some reflections from Sir Alan Budd, a key economic adviser to the Thatcher administration: "My worry is … that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions … who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes – if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since."
In his analysis of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the ensuing economic depression, liberal economist JK Galbraith identified "bad distribution of income" as the biggest cause of the crisis. Yet history is repeating itself. It is hard to discern any government policies that are designed to increase the employee share of GDP.
Despite the banking crash, the government's not-so-bright idea for economic recovery is that by 2015 ordinary people will somehow increase their personal borrowing by another 50% from £1.5tn to £2.12tn. Clearly, no lessons have been learned from history.
- This article first appeared on Guardian Comment is Free