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Wed 29 September 2021

The Byline Intelligence Team exposes the poverty and inequality that has burgeoned during 11 years of Conservative rule

The Conservative Party has been in power for 11 years. It has had almost 4,100 days to reshape Britain. But who has benefitted?

Stories of persistent structural inequality have been a regular feature of Conservative rule under leaders David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Recently, these stories have revealed that white working class pupils have been failed by years of neglect; that almost 400,000 more UK homes are heading for fuel poverty; and that the COVID-19 death risk is nearly four times higher in the poorest areas of England. Even the Chancellor has been reported to the UK’s statistics watchdog over claims that he misled the public over levels of poverty in Britain.

Despite this, the Prime Minister remains resolute, claiming that strong Conservative leadership is “the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough; the magic sauce; the ketchup of catch-up”.

Such rhetoric has been part of the Conservative lexicon for years. In 2010, Cameron’s election campaign was pitched on the notion that “we’re all in this together”. The message was intended to galvanise the public in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, promising that no-one would be left behind.

But, in the years that followed, were such promises kept?

A Conservative Party campaign poster for the 2010 General Election. Photo: Flickr

Data compiled by the Byline Intelligence Team suggests not.

Taking 12 key indicators, it is clear that poverty and inequality have perceptibly risen over the past decade. Though the relative prosperity of some groups has increased, it has fallen for large swathes of the population. 

The percentage of people living in relative poverty is higher today than in 2010

Despite Conservative claims that reducing state intervention can act as a solution to poverty, the percentage of individuals living in relative poverty (those with household incomes of less than 60% of the median income) is higher now than when David Cameron took office in 2010. 

Although poverty rates fell between 2010 and 2014, they have subsequently continued to rise and, in 2019/20, the percentage of people in the UK in relative poverty (before housing costs) was almost two percentage points higher than it was in 2010/11. By 2019/20, it was estimated that 14.5 million people in Britain were in poverty after housing costs – and it is likely that the Coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate this.

The percentage of children in poverty has risen at an even faster rate

The rise in overall poverty rates in the past decade has been somewhat suppressed by a decline in poverty among workers who do not have children. However, at the same time, poverty rates among children have risen sharply.

There has been a 13% increase in the child poverty rate (after housing costs) meaning that, today, nine children in a classroom of 30 are living in poverty

The same is true for the poverty rate among pensioners, which has been slowly creeping up in recent years. 

In-work poverty is on the rise

When the Conservatives took office in 2010, jobs were presented as a magic bullet. Getting a job, the nation was told, was the foundation of collective and individual prosperity, security and independence. Whilst unemployment has fallen since 2010 and remains low, the number of people experiencing in-work poverty has increased.

The claim that the Conservatives are “the party of working people” – made by Cameron in 2015 – falls somewhat flat given that, in 2018/19, four million people lacked suitable economic stability, despite being in some form of employment. This constitutes a 21% increase from 2010 – a figure far in excess of population increases in the same time-frame.

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the number of rough sleepers in England had doubled

In 2009, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, promised to end rough sleeping within three years, stating that “it’s scandalous that, in 21st Century London, people have to resort to sleeping on the streets”.

Since then, however, his party has done little to address the problem. The number of rough sleepers in England rose steadily from 2011 to 2017, and fell only slightly in 2018 and 2019.

Although the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have forced the hand of many councils to offer individuals temporary housing, the number of rough sleepers in England in autumn 2020 was still higher than in 2011. 

In 2019, 96% more people were sleeping on the streets than in 2011. 

A record number of people are relying on food banks

Data from the Trussell Trust – a charity supporting a nationwide network of food banks – shows that the number of emergency food parcels distributed has risen acutely in the past decade. This suggests that the number of people facing food insecurity is similarly growing. 

Although increased uncertainty brought about by the Coronavirus crisis is likely to have contributed to rises in food bank reliance over the past 16 months, dramatic increases in their use over the past 10 years reflects a much deeper problem. 

The number of emergency food parcels distributed by Trussell Trust food banks in 2020 was 402% higher than it had been in 2010.

The number of high net worth individuals has risen sharply

While the data shows a worsening situation for poorer members of society – one of growing hardship, uncertainty, and insecurity – the same is not true for more affluent sections of the population.

Despite the 2008 financial crisis, since 2010, the total number of high net worth individuals in the UK – those whose assets are typically above $1 million – has risen by more than 100,000, according to Capgemini.

The number of high net worth individuals living in Britain in 2020 was 26% higher than it was in 2010.

The income share of the top 1% is comfortably higher than a decade ago

Perhaps more arresting is the fact that the ultra-wealthy have become much richer in the past decade, accounting for an increasingly large proportion of the country’s wealth.

In 2010/2011, the richest 1% of Britons held a 7% share of total income; by 2019/2020 their cut was 8.3%.

The ultra-rich have seen their fortunes grow

The story is much the same if we head even further up the food chain.

Tracking the combined wealth of the UK’s 10 richest individuals or families – as ranked by The Sunday Times Rich List – it is evident that Britain’s ultra-rich have seen their fortunes multiply in the past decade. In 2010, the top 10 boasted a combined wealth of £69.9 billion. By the publication of the latest Rich List in May 2021, that figure had more than doubled to £154 billion – more than the GDP of Greece. 

The Sunday Times Rich List does not account for inflation in its annual calculations. However, the Bank of England states that inflation averaged 2.7% a year between 2010 and 2020. Therefore, £70 billion worth of goods in 2010 would be worth around £91.79 billion in 2020. As the above graph reflects, the combined wealth of the UK’s 10 richest individuals or families grew at a far greater rate than inflation. 

Income inequality is still rising

Given the above data, it is not surprising that income inequality in the UK is on the rise. As the poor get poorer and the rich richer, the UK is climbing the global rankings of the world’s most unequal countries.

The UK’s Gini coefficient (an index measuring income inequality in a country) has shown a clear upward trend in the past 10 years. Despite some fluctuations, the UK is far more unequal now than it was when Cameron first pledged that “we’re all in this together”.

Regional inequality is intensifying

England not only faces rising income inequality, but a continuous and growing gulf in prosperity between its regions. Although the Johnson Government claims that it seeks to correct an economic system that favours those in London and the south-east – ‘levelling up’ – there is little evidence to suggest that this gap is closing.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that wealth in London and the south-east has grown rapidly since 2006, while those in the north-east and east Midlands have seen their wealth stagnate and even shrink.

Promises made in 2015 to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ have not borne much fruit, as the rest of the UK continues to lag behind the capital and the south-east. 

The poorest group has seen its disposable income fall while all others are relatively better-off

Up until 2017, the levels of disposable income available to households in Britain showed a broadly similar trend. From 2010/11 to 2012/13, household disposable income fell for both the richest and the poorest quintiles – suggesting that everyone in the UK was suffering from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.

The, in 2012/13, as the economy began to recover, all quintiles began to rise with the tide, seeing their household incomes increase beyond what they had been in 2010. By 2016/2017, it seemed that all sections of society had benefited to some extent from the recovery. Both the rich and poor had – on average – more money in their pockets.

However, a strange occurrence took place after 2016/2017. While the disposable income of the top four quintiles continued to show an overwhelmingly positive trend, median disposable income for the bottom quintile fell off a cliff – falling in 2017/18, 2018/19, and 2019/20. Today, the bottom income quintile is the only group living with less disposable income than it had in 2010.

Poorer households have been worst impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic

The precariousness of the circumstances faced by poorer Brits over the past 11 years has inevitably left many susceptible to even the slightest of shocks. The enormous economic upheaval wrought by the Coronavirus pandemic has therefore been felt more sharply by poorer members of society.

When asked “has your household income changed at all since the start of the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK?”, 43.8% of those in the bottom income quintile said that their household incomes had fallen as a result of the crisis. For the top income quintile, this figure was only 30.4%. 

In 2011, David Cameron pledged that the Conservatives could “change Britain’s future”. In 2015, he promised a “brighter, more secure future”, whereby people in the UK would be offered a “good life”. In 2017, Theresa May laid out her plan for a “stronger Britain and a prosperous future”. And, in 2019, Boris Johnson offered the opportunity to “move on instead of going backwards”. 

However, it is clear from the statistics that these pledges of a fairer, more equitable country exist solely in the forever tomorrow. Instead, the gulf between rich and poor has unequivocally widened.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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