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Ideas of What Is or Isn't 'Earned' Will Define This Era of Politics

21/04/2014 17:45 BST | Updated 21/06/2014 10:59 BST

As the old saying goes, 'A fair day's work for a fair day's pay', and this was the idea which underpinned how we all thought about wages, work and social progression. You get what you deserve, what you earn, and that's how you get along in life. However, in today's Britain, in this economy, these ideas have been skewed and subverted, and the fight to resurrect the principle of something being 'earned' is being fought across all sorts of political battlefields.

Take one issue: welfare spending. By rights, it shouldn't be a major issue, because benefit spending largely goes to pensioners, not the unemployed. Yet people across Britain are positively apoplectic about their 'hard-earned' money going to 'scroungers'. What gets people going is the idea that those on benefits haven't earned what they are getting. No matter what you say to them about the underlying social contract, giving others a chance, or any other arguments for social security spending, this point of principle still continues to fuel the argument.

We see it too in debates over sky-high salaries in elite industries. Bankers get millions in bonuses, footballers earn thousands every week: we all know the clichés. The market says this is what they are worth, but the general public don't really believe that. Do they earn this money, really? Can anyone do a job that genuinely, demonstrably, should produce that kind of reward? And what does it say about our society that the highest earners do so in industries that are often corrupt, exploitative or lacking in what we might consider 'value'?

At the bottom end of the income scale, the same issue causes problems for millions. The lack of a living wage for many people - the inability to earn enough to sustain a normal family life - cripples huge swathes of the population. Ordinary working people are not getting a fair shake out of this economy; pay packets do not go as far as they used to. The numbers - which show earnings going down in real terms - tie in with the emotions - people feeling that they aren't paid what they deserve. Working hard, day in, day out, and not making enough to get by.

Looking at the issue from a different perspective provides the same answer: the notion of wealth, rather than earnings, and how wealth distorts the economy. The richest tenth of people have between 25-35% of all income. Yet their share of the wealth sits between 60-70%. Wealth is more often unearned too. Someone inheriting an estate does nothing to deserve the windfall that they get. If the value of your houses increases by a whopping great chunk, then you are a great deal wealthier but you've not earned that. The statistics I quoted earlier in the paragraph show that the economic system favoured in the Anglo-Saxon countries is designed to perpetuate the wealth gap, and to ensure that assets are hoarded by the same people, in perpetuity, forever increasing in value through no action whatsoever.

This idea of 'earning' something, or not earning enough, or too much, stretches across politics ideologically, not just on the basis of a few disparate issues. Debates about wealth are a typically left-wing issue traditionally, yet it is the Liberal Democrats - now clearly a party of the centre-right - who first proposed a mansion tax. Labour toys with offering a living wage to all, and makes proclamations about the unjust nature of high wages - especially in banking - that the Conservatives do not and cannot follow. However, it is the Tories, and the right more generally, who leads the way when it comes to attacking unearned 'waste' in the benefits system. They all recognise that this concept of what is earned and not earned strikes a chord at the hearts of voters - they just approach it from different angles.

Like many concepts in today's politics, rows over what is or isn't earned stem from the Thatcherite economic settlement left to the UK in the 1980s. It was during this period that the gap between rich and poor started to grow, and those at the top saw their incomes spiral - whether their job performance merited it or not. Under Thatcher, the free market was allowed to determine more and more elements of economic life in Britain, and a market has no concept of earnings, or of value - it simply pays what it is rigged to pay. At some point, Britain lost its sense of what the true value of work was, for those at the bottom and those at the top. Britain became comfortable - too comfortable - with gross disparities in wealth, and too liberal in its attitudes to wealth accumulation - allowing financiers to gain massive fortunes without questioning whether what they did valued it, ensuring that unearned income was not punished too punitively by capital gains tax or inheritance tax. Furthermore, the jobless were put on the road towards today's 'strivers versus skivers' stand-off, and 'social security' became the much harsher sounding 'benefits'. Welfare spending came to be seen as a handout, not a hand up - unearned and useless, not an investment in those who were less fortunate in the employment market.

Any party which wishes to be truly successful today has to recognise that the public want a much fuller explanation of where tax revenues are being spent and why they are being spent in these areas, and that they also want to know where the parties stand on the value - the morality, even - of the people who earn much more, or much less, than they 'should'. For Labour, the challenge will be to defend their idea of social security, and to reinvent benefit spending in the public imagination as something that doesn't have to be earned by sending jobless graduates into branches of pound shops. The Conservatives, meanwhile, must justify their free market approach that allows wages to sky-rocket in some industries and stagnate in others, and which consolidates the wealth of the few while eliminating the wealth of the many. As the collective pie grows smaller and smaller, both left and right must come up with more convincing arguments about who should and shouldn't get bigger slices of it.