The public are more concerned about inequality than either immigration, cutting taxes or curbing benefits

New polling found that 76 per cent of voters think big businesses has too much power over the government, reports Luke Hildyard.

New polling found that 76 per cent of voters think big businesses has too much power over the government, reports Luke Hildyard

Last week a study from Princeton University was published analysing 1,800 policies enacted in the United States between 1981 and 2002. The overwhelming majority corresponded to the preferences of the richest 10 per cent of the population and large special interest groups, while contradicting those of ordinary Americans.

As the researchers put it:

“economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”.

Would the UK be any different? Most people don’t think so.

Polling for the High Pay Centre this week found that 76 per cent of voters agree that big businesses have too much power over the government. Just as significantly, 82 per cent believe that benefits from business success go to the owners and bosses without benefiting workers or the community.

Taken together, these findings imply that a majority of people clearly believe that big business has the power to dictate government policy and uses it to the detriment of the public interest.

One of the biggest risks of corporate influence over the political system is that the so-called ‘super-managers’ who run big businesses will use their power for personal gain, enabling a tiny proportion of people to grab a bigger and bigger share of the nation’s total wealth and widening the gap between the super-rich and everybody else.

In the UK, pay for a FTSE 100 CEO leapt from around 20 times the national average in 1980 to 60 times in the late 90s to 160 times today. The share of the UK’s national income going to the richest 1 per cent has more than doubled since the late 1980s. According to the World Top Income Database, the 13 per cent of total income captured by the top 1 per cent in the UK is bigger than in virtually any other advanced economy, other than the USA.

This has a significant repercussions for relative living standards – if a tiny proportion of the population take a larger amount of total incomes, it means that incomes for ordinary people in the UK are likely to be a lot lower than in ostensibly similar-sized economies.

Again, the public realise this. The High Pay Centre poll found that 80 per cent of people think it is important for the government to reduce the gap between rich and poor – a higher figure than for limiting immigration, cutting taxes or curbing benefits.

Such strength of feeling might seem surprising in a slightly hysterical media environment where comparatively mild policy proposals like raising the top rate of income tax to 50p are decried as class war. But other trends in public opinion also suggest a wider exasperation with inequality and vested interests.

In Scotland, threats from major businesses to re-locate to England in the event of a vote for independence have only strengthened the ‘Yes’ campaign. It seems that people reacted badly to the assumption that they would quail before the business lobby and happily accept that political and economic possibilities do not exist for Scotland beyond the confines set by corporate power.

Similarly, in his recent EU debate with Nick Clegg, it was telling that Nigel Farage’s successful strategy saw him frequently invoke the notion of a Europe run for ‘big business’ and ‘the rich’. Indeed, it is noteworthy that UKIP supporters are as likely as the wider population to demand government action to reduce inequality (80 per cent, more than wish to see taxes or benefits slashed).

The UKIP phenomenon has been subject to much scrutiny. Though most of the party’s leadership is made up of arch right-wingers fed up with the takeover of the Conservative Party by people like George Osborne and Michael Gove, the analysis generally depicts a more complex sense of anger, betrayal and disaffection with a changing society as drivers of the UKIP vote. Immigration and sleazy politicians of all parties are usually the targets.

However, might it be that the growing divide between the super-rich and everybody else exacerbates this disaffection? Does the rise of UKIP not also highlight a need for politicians who understand that the interests of big business and the super-rich sometimes conflict with the aspirations of ordinary people?

Luke Hildyard works for the High Pay Centre and is a Left Foot Forward contributing editor

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