Last week, at a literary party, I talked to a very handsome writer. "What we need," he said, after taking a big swig of champagne, "is conviction politicians." I wasn't quite sure what he meant. Did he mean a conviction politician like Hitler? Or like Castro? Or perhaps like Margaret Thatcher? But when I said Margaret Thatcher, he pulled a face. No, he said, he didn't want a conviction politician like Hitler, or Castro, or Margaret Thatcher. He wanted a conviction politician with convictions he liked. One, he said, like Tony Benn.
The writer lives, I think, in Camden. When you live in Camden, or Haringey, or Hackney, or Southwark, you meet a lot of people who say that what we need is more "conviction politicians". You meet a lot of people who say that what we need is a fairer voting system, and a lot of people who don't think there should be any cuts, and a lot of people who say the answer to a very big deficit is to make the rich pay more tax. You also meet a lot of people who say things like "there is a genuine progressive majority in this country" and "what we need is a clearer narrative".
To be honest, I'm still not sure what "progressive" means, though I think the people who say it think it has something to do with fairness, and something to do with the centre-left. I'm still not sure what "narrative" means, either, though I think it might be a word that people doing cultural studies use instead of "story" to justify the cost of their course. But if there is a "progressive majority" in this country, of people who want a fairer voting system, and who think there shouldn't be any cuts, and who think the answer to a very big deficit is to make the rich pay more tax, there isn't much sign of it.
In the local elections two weeks ago, the Conservatives expected, at least in England, to lose at least 800 seats. They didn't lose 800 seats. They didn't lose any seats. They gained, in fact, 86. Labour expected, in its heartlands, and particularly in Scotland, where Gordon Brown's name is not a swear word, and particularly at a time of massive, life-changing, community-decimating cuts, to gain a lot. It didn't. In Scotland, it was slaughtered by a very smart Alex. In the south of England, it couldn't manage more than the odd poppy splash of red in a sea of blue.
If people are bothered by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger by the day, they certainly didn't show it at the ballot box. Chief executives of FTSE 100 companies, according to a new report from the High Pay Commission, now earn an average of £3.7m, which is 145 times more than the average wage. By 2020, the report says, the figure will be 214 times the average. By 2030, we'll be back to Victorian levels of inequality, with the top 0.1 per cent of the population taking 14 per cent of the national income.
In the past decade, the earnings of the top 0.1 per cent have increased by 64 per cent, while average pay has gone up by just 7 per cent. It did this because businesses think you have to pay CEOs an awful lot of money, because it's risky work, like being a bomb disposal expert, though actually the turnover rate for CEOs of FTSE 100 companies is less than half the national average, and actually bomb disposal experts don't get paid very much, and actually CEOs don't get blown up. They think you have to pay CEOs this much because otherwise they'll all be poached by companies in Hong Kong, although only one FTSE 100 company had its CEO poached in the past five years, and that was in Britain. They think that trying to regulate CEO pay would be bad for the economy, even though our economy is doing a lot worse than Germany's, and France's, and Italy's, where CEO pay is much lower.
But when businesses say that they need to pay their people 145 times as much as us, we must believe them, because otherwise we'd be voting for political parties that want to tax them more, and we don't. Even when we voted, three times in a row, for a party that said it was Labour, but a special, new, electable kind of Labour, we did it because we knew that no one would have to pay more than 40 per cent of their income in tax. When the Government said that they were very sorry, but they were going to make people who earned more than £150,000 pay 50 per cent, they had to say that they wouldn't do it for very long. Because even though only 1 per cent of the population earned more than £150,000, the 99 per cent of us that didn't wanted to think that one day we might.
Only a few hundred of us went on the "rally against debt" in London last week to say that we didn't think that the cuts the Coalition was making went far enough. Toby Young, who wrote a book on how to alienate people, and who's the son of a man who wrote a book on education and equality, said he would, but didn't. But most of us don't seem to mind too much about the cuts, because if we did, we wouldn't have voted for our councils to be led by the party that was making them.
Some of us are so keen on the cuts that we've started attacking people who are getting money from the state who we think shouldn't. We have, for example, started attacking people in wheelchairs. We have, according to a recent survey by Scope, got 37 per cent better at abusing people with disabilities in the past year, although the word that the people with the disabilities used was "worse".
We've started saying more loudly, and more often, that we don't want any more immigrants coming in to our country, and that we don't want the ones who are here to have support from the state. And we've started saying that we think poor people should start pulling their weight, and stop having so many children, and that we think it's a very good idea for them to be moved out of city centres to places where we don't have to see them.
In all of this, we're not alone. France has shifted to the right. (So far to the right that Monday's Financial Times said Marine Le Pen might beat Sarkozy in the first presidential round.) So has Italy. So has Germany. So, even, has that beacon of social democracy, Sweden. If politics is about pendulums, this one doesn't seem to be swinging back.
We're living in a world where we'd rather see cuts than pay more tax. We don't want cuts to our wages, or our pensions, but we're happy to see cuts to services for the poor. Of whom there aren't enough to swing the vote.
If we want to move against the tide of what appears to be history, and find a way to deal with debt that doesn't turn our most vulnerable citizens into scapegoats, and doesn't bring the economy to a standstill, and doesn't suggest that the way to deal with a decline in high street spending, caused by fear and frozen wages, is to get a reality TV star to carry out a "review", and doesn't think that CEOs should earn 145 times as much as everyone else, and doesn't think it's unreasonable for the top 1 per cent of the population to pay a little bit more tax, then we're going to need a lot more than a few "conviction politicians". We're going to need people who can make a case (but not a "narrative") and who can come up with a few policies, and who can actually win something called an election.
I think we might be waiting for quite some time.