Unjust Rewards

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Polly Toynbee and David Walker, Granta Books, £12.99

In 11 years of Labour government the gap between the richest and poorest in Britain has increased. Twenty years ago the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies earned, on average, 17 times as much as their companies' workers: now they earn 75 times as much. Social mobility has decreased since 1997: it's now harder for able working class children to follow the upward path of Labour leaders like Jack Straw and David Blunkett.

As inflation rises and recession looms, this has become a political issue. Gordon Brown has limited public sector pay rises to 2 percent, while chief executives' pay rose 37 percent in the year ending August 2007. A government unit has been established, Harriet Harman announced at the TUC, to seek "robust evidence" of inequality. Yet plentiful evidence already exists, much of it summarised in Polly Toynbee and David Walker's book.

Your jaw drops when you discover how rich people live. Top city lawyers earn £5 million a year; a public limited company chairman can expect half a million.

Do bosses deserve more because they may get kicked out at any time? No, on average they stay in their jobs about the same time as anyone else. Must they get huge pay to keep them in Britain, when they could work abroad? As many as 86 percent of FTSE chief executives are from Britain - the globally mobile ruling class is a myth.

Unjust Rewards is full of arguments and statistics which every trade unionist and campaigner will find useful. But there are serious problems with Toynbee and Walker's account of society. They assume that the working class is a minority, consisting of low-paid manual workers like cleaners and supermarket staff. All white collar workers are assumed to be middle class.

In this analysis workers, who can fight back, are replaced by "the poor", who suffer passively. Toynbee and Walker see class struggle as the problem, not the solution.

Toynbee has defended the Labour government's record for years: now she is calling for Brown to go and the government to move left as a high risk strategy for survival. She and Walker propose higher taxes for the rich and a raft of other moderate reforms. Yet, after years of accepting neoliberal ideas, there is no sign of Labour taking Toynbee's advice. This book makes clear why the government's problems run so deep - but has no real solution to offer.