Earlier this month I went to an anti-poverty conference in North Edinburgh. It was great to see so many people from disadvantaged communities not giving up but, rather, challenging the status quo of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ which characterises our society.
And I am inspired also by the protesters in St. Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh and across the UK and other countries who are bringing into mainstream discussion – at last! – the unacceptability of the increasing gap between rich and poor.
First among major UK politicians, Ed Miliband in his conference speech (which received fairly mixed reviews) raised this issue and he even linked it to the unrest that led to riots in England earlier this year. In government, however, New Labour advanced the neoliberal market agenda. Albeit that they introduced worthwhile schemes targeted at specific individuals and communities, they didn’t want to tinker with addressing structural economic inequalities. Indeed, politicians like Mandelson seemed to revel in encouraging greed and excess for people at the top. (And remember, I’m only talking here about our UK context; the situation becomes even more extreme when we consider the global situation.)
This week the High Pay Commission described the high salaries of UK executives as “corrosive” to the economy. Stating that the disparity between what top executives and average workers earn has been building for 30 years, it drew up a 12-point plan to stop “high pay creating inequalities last seen in the Victorian era”. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said he would be “looking seriously” at the proposals.
Let’s hope he does but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Because the political establishment has presided over and even encouraged a situation where, for example, the pay of top executives at a number of FTSE companies had risen by more than 4,000% on average in the last 30 years.
In the companies’ defence, Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo in the UK and Irish Republic, told the BBC:
“If we want great people to come and work in the UK, given it’s a global talent pool, we’ve got to be prepared to pay the amount of money that those executives can get elsewhere in the world”.
To which I say, follow the St. Andrew’s Square protesters’ example. Don’t buy any of Pepsico UK’s brands. These include: Walker’s Crisps, Doritos, red Sky, Sunbites, Quaker Oats, Scott’s Porage Oats, Tropicana, Pepsi MAX, 7UP, Gatorade, Planet Lunch, Copella, SoBe V-Water. (I have to admit that it won’t be a big sacrifice for me not to purchase anything from this unhealthy list!)
Protest loudly. Lobby politicians. Don’t let David Cameron say that we’re ‘in it together’ while pay for directors of the UK’s top businesses has risen by 50% over the past year, to an average of around £2.7m. If you’re working in the much maligned public sector, strike on 30th November.
And snap out of complacency.
To return to the North Edinburgh Poverty conference that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, one of the things that most moved me was when an old woman, describing her experience in her ‘ice box’ flat, suggested to others, as a way of managing their fuel bills, that they follow her example and make up a flask of tea or coffee first thing in the morning so that they won’t have to boil the kettle more than once a day. I met a few days later with a friend and expressed my disgust at the unacceptability of such a situation. His response was that there was no ‘real reason’ for anyone to be worried about being able to afford to boil a kettle.
But they are.
And that’s ‘real’.