Inequality is spiraling because our democracy is broken

The rich have the power and are using it to keep themselves rich.

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.

Around 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.

Sarah Clarke is a senior policy and communications officer at Unlock Democracy

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6 Responses to “Inequality is spiraling because our democracy is broken”

  1. Blissex

    «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.»

    But that’s the usual “leftoid” fantasy stereotype, that the top hatted elites, the 1%, are the only beneficiaries. That is ridiculous rhetoric that may have been true in 1850, things have changed.

    The Conservatives got 14 million votes in june 2017, and that’s not just “the richest, the financiers, the corporations” because millions of middle and especially upper-middle class voters have enjoyed in the past decades since 1983 booming living standards thanks to their determination to rig the political and economic system, to work for them, delivering massive housing cost inflation in the Home Counties and London, where an average 2-3 bedroom flat or semi gains £20,000-£40,000 a year for their proprietor, work-free, often tax-free, entirely redistributed from poorer renters and buyers. These millions of small rentiers believe themselves to be in the same class as the 1% of “the richest, the financiers, the corporations”, and that’s the biggest political problem.
    Ironically it was the success of the trade unions and Labour in winning for them good pensions, decent wages, and low price housing, that turned them into small rentiers, eager to make housing unaffordable to everybody else, and to cut the pensions and wages of everybody else.
    As long as “leftoid” thinking is based on the delusion that only the 1% benefits from the system the crucial political issue of how to win back the small rentiers to socialdemocracy won’t be even addressed, never mind solved.

  2. wg

    I agree with Blissex above – I am one of that generation that did want (and got) it all: although some of us regard a house as something to live in – not something to exploit for profit.
    I also believe that a lot of my generation are quite prepared to help young people and do not need free prescriptions and bus passes.

    But, here’s my problem – I live in a Labour-run city that puts theatres and art clubs before people.
    A massive bureaucracy has been installed with numerous people on £100,000+ salaries, and money is wasted on frivolous nonsense – whose only purpose, it seems, is to goad and sneer at the more conservative working people of the city.

    I want to help the poorer and young people of my city, but I have to get past the fat cats that have established themselves in jobs-for-life positions first.

    It’s not just the bankers: besides, these were the people that the oft-described ‘Left’ sided with when the poorer people of this country voted to leave an uncaring and unaccountable EU.

  3. Julia Gibb

    The biggest con of the elite few who run this country was to divide people by greed. The Thatcher own your council house. The Tory tax bands etc etc. Once you cross a certain earnings threshhold you should vote Tory for self interest.
    The media helped with the benefit scroungers campaign.
    Self interest and greed are now the dominant drivers.
    The middle income band only see an extra few hundred pounds a year in the bank and it conditions them to ignore the tens of thousands going to the higher income bracket.

    The drip feed of greed is good has taken root. It will pave the way for more cuts and NHS privatisation.

    We are the problem not the political parties. If you want a decent society you have to pay for it. ( but not me you cry, not me!)

  4. Julia Gibb

    WG & Blissex.

    Why ignore the main cost driver. It is not the local council or a few support systems. It is putting Empire before people. We have nuclear weapons, weapons of Force Projection ( Aircraft Carriers and long range nuclear Astute Class submarines are not defence).
    We have a Royal Family with obscene wealth.
    We have an unelected HofLs.
    We accept tax evasion on a grand scale.
    We have a legal system in which wealth dictates the outcome.

    Does anyone think Foodbanks are acceptable in order to keep our seat at the security council?

    We are being herded like sheep and Brexit is the latest example. Human rights to be lost to drive through another jump to the right.

  5. Patrick Newman

    Well wg you are just a sneaky Tory who aims to undermine people wishing to support Labour. You do not care about inequality – it is all disingenuity. Inequality is brought about the way unregulated capitalism works ensuring that a small percentage of the population accumulate high incomes and concentrations of wealth. Senior town hall managers are several leagues below the real fat cats FTSE multi-million pound who creme from the real wealth producers – the employees.

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