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Editorial: The richest and the rest – only by making the wealthy pay can we protect ordinary people

OXFAM’S devastating Inequality Kills report exposes the widening chasm that exists between the richest and the rest.

That 10 men own more than the poorest 3.1 billion people put together is obscene in itself. That they have more than doubled that wealth during a pandemic that has forced another 160 million people into poverty and left 99 per cent of the world’s population poorer should be a call to arms.

Though the charity expresses the hope that the online World Economic Forum this week will act on its alarming findings, it can hardly expect it to.

This corporate networking body — better known by the name of its usual meeting place, Davos — is funded by giant corporations and operates to increase the domination of government by big business rather than address it.

The only way to challenge the power of the super-rich is through democratic action which needs to start at home. Oxfam’s call for a wealth tax is just as justified in Britain and, unlike the World Economic Forum, the British state does have the power to levy one.

Currently nothing seems less likely than it doing so. But if some senior Tories see the “partygate” scandal as a problem for Boris Johnson alone — the press is full of speculation as to the leadership ambitions of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — they have failed to clock that the explosion of public anger over lockdown-breaching revels at No 10 is due to the contemptuous attitude they expose to the suffering of ordinary people in a pandemic that has killed over 150,000 people in Britain.

That wave of public anger will only increase as huge energy bill hikes clobber millions of households in April and as a National Insurance rise hits working people in the pocket. The withdrawal of the universal credit uplift is already hitting poorer families hard. 

The Chancellor’s autumn Budget was predicated on Britain being in full recovery from the pandemic — but the impact of the government’s own policies, from domestic factors like the refusal to raise statutory sick pay to levels people can actually live on, to international ones like its obstruction of a vaccine patent waiver to help inoculate the global South, means a post-Covid Britain is still a distant prospect.

What we face instead are periodic outbreaks of new variants in a context where state support for those affected has been taken away.

Oxfam’s findings illustrate a deeper problem with talk of “recovery” from the pandemic. Like the “all in it together” myth of David Cameron’s austerity drive, “recovery” assumes that the economic dislocation of the pandemic has hurt everyone and renewed growth will benefit everyone.

In fact, the wealthy do not need to “recover” from a crisis that has massively increased their wealth, while Treasury boasts about GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels will not mean much to the exhausted nurse whose pay is falling ever further behind inflation, or the family thrust into fuel poverty while oil and gas companies rake in record profits.

Now that the IPPR think tank has exposed the emptiness of Tory “levelling up” schemes that have not arrested a growth in regional inequality, it is time for the left to embrace a different kind of levelling.

Anger at the Conservatives will not deliver real change unless an alternative economic strategy can be popularised. As Keir Starmer made clear on LBC today with his rejection of public ownership of energy, Labour on current form will not provide one.

The case must be pressed for redistribution rather than “recovery” — the rich have the funds that we need to raise pay, invest in public services, adapt to climate change and much more. The impressive pay rises being won by unions through a new wave of strikes is evidence that challenging the bosses works.

It is time to make the rich pay.

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