Corbyn’s warning about the stinking rich could smell sweet to struggling workers


Should anybody have nine zeroes to their name? In the opening stages of the election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn launched a salvo against billionaires. A Labour government would go after super-rich people who exploit a “rigged system” to benefit themselves at the expense of the many, he warned in a speech last week.

Britain has more than 150 billionaires, who control assets worth £525bn. Yet with 14 million people in relative poverty, each one of these billionaires could be seen as a failure of government policy.

The crux of the Labour argument is whether such extreme wealth for so few people – 0.0002% of the population – can benefit society at large. Should anyone be allowed to grow filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes? Has the wealth been earned fairly and gained legally?

To some, billionaires represent a gaggle of golden geese. They are symbols of the UK outgunning its economic rivals, acting as a welcoming port in a politically stormy world, with its arms open wide to the wealth creators.

The argument goes that the top 1% of earners account for 27% of income tax receipts and create jobs across the country. An example of this would be Britain’s third-richest man, Jim Ratcliffe, who is worth £18bn as head of Ineos – the petrochemicals group that employs 17,000 people. The politics of envy and class war would, some argue, drive wealth creators away, damage the exchequer and rob the country of innovations that only free-market capitalism might provide.

The Labour leader might have named Mike Ashley as an example of all that is wrong with billionaires in Britain, but after all the owner of the Sports Direct empire can claim he employs almost 30,000 people across the UK.

However, what ought to be questioned is the quality of the jobs that are created, and whether workers are fairly rewarded for their part in driving wealth creation. And where might the billionaires flee to, without access to the workforce and customer base that they rely on?

Even if they didn’t pay tax or spend a penny of their earnings, it would take an average UK worker more than 40,000 years to become a billionaire

Should those 30,000 people at Sports Direct have been rewarded more and Ashley less? Given the evidence uncovered by the Guardian of low pay and precarious employment conditions for Sports Direct workers, the answer ought to be obvious. Corbyn knows this. And so does the country at large.

Some of the super-rich might have won their status through their own efforts. But many were simply born into wealth – such as the Duke of Westminster, who is worth £10bn – or made their money through the avarice of rent-seeking.

No one can create wealth in a vacuum. Even to become a billionaire through entrepreneurial spirit requires the infrastructure of a nation: a skilled workforce, the rule of law, political stability, transport and communications systems and consumers to sell to.

The fact that there are more than 150 billionaires in Britain goes to the heart of how unequal the nation has become. Despite crippling austerity and the lowest real wages growth since the end of the Napoleonic wars, the ranks of the super-rich have more than doubled in the past decade. Despite the financial crisis, the nation is still home to the highest number of bankers paid more than €1m a year – 3,500 – of any EU nation.

Attacking the billionaire class is a smart move for Labour, allowing it to sidestep accusations that the party is anti-aspiration. Most people agree that at some level wealth starts to become repulsive. Growing fantastically rich may be an ambition for many, but it is reached by few. Billionaire status is out of the reach of almost everyone, including even successful entrepreneurs.

Even if they didn’t pay tax or spend a penny of their earnings, the time it would take a worker on the average UK salary – about £25,000 – to earn their way to billionaire status is more than 40,000 years – a period equivalent to the entire existence of Homo sapiens in Britain.

Boris Johnson has framed the election as parliament versus people. Labour would prefer the debate to be people versus the elite. With an argument about billionaires, Corbyn and Labour are on fertile ground.

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