Mark Steel: We're all in this together (except when times are good)

The idea of shared responsibility only seems to apply during a recession

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From now on, anyone who wants to make you worse off has a new catchphrase. If a mugger demands your wallet and you refuse to give it to him, he'll say "Haven't you heard? We're all in this together." And as he takes it he'll say: "See, we've all got to make a sacrifice."

It's a shame how it works, because this shared responsibility only seems to apply during a recession. While the banks were making billions, very few politicians were screaming "For God's sake you idiots, share all those bonuses out. Can't you see we're all in this together," which goes to show how complicated economics can be.

Luckily for the richest layer of society, we weren't in it together back then, so from 1997 to 2007 the wealthiest 1 per cent of the country could double its share of the wealth, while the poorest 10 per cent had their share cut in half. Then came the banking crash, after which that top layer took a humble and radical decision to carry on exactly the same.

So in the last year, the average pay of directors of FTSE companies has risen by 10 per cent, to reach £791,000. The first question to these people must be what couldn't they get with only £721,000 that they need the extra for?

If a director was told his salary was staying the same, would he shout: "WHAT? How am I going to pay for the kids' space programme? I've already had a red reminder bill from Nasa, I'll have to do some mini-cabbing in the evening or I'll be having the bailiffs round."

Others have softened the blow of recession in other ways. For example the chief of P&O was awarded, along with his pay rise, £80,000 worth of tickets for top sporting events. Imagine if a union leader called a press conference and said: "While the management have conceded tickets for semi-final day at Wimbledon, there has sadly been no progress on the issue of the Third Test at Trent Bridge, and so the strike is due to begin at midnight tonight."

Or there's Martin Sorrell, Group chief of WPP advertising, who in the last year laid off 7,200 staff and collected a £3m salary. But because we're all in it together maybe he gave them a little jingle as he laid them off, singing "You won't be let back in with a Sorrell sacking, now you're on – the dole."

No one even attempts to justify these raises any more, although they ought to be told to try, so we could see them muttering: "Well, it's imperative I earn more than last year, to compensate for all the suffering of knowing we're all in together. Yes, that's it."

Instead, George Osborne and Peter Mandelson tell us these amounts would make little difference to the overall debt of the country. So they make do with an occasional call on the banking industry to "show restraint". In which case both parties will presumably change their stance towards the slightly smaller amounts claimed illegally by people on benefits, and commission adverts that go "Benefit cheats – we're closing in. And when we do, you'll be asked to show restraint and responsibility in the amount that you fiddle in the future. Thank you."

The cry that we're suddenly together has happened countless times, in every recession. There was probably a Roman emperor who announced "Citizens of Rome. Unfortunately it appears I have used up all the gold of the empire in having a temple built for me and my wives. It's not my fault because no one was regulating me, as I had the last regulator crucified. So the most important thing is for all slaves to work themselves to a wretched death as quickly as possible, as we're all very much in this together. Cheers."

And maybe worst of all, if Labour do try to oppose the absurdity of a pair of multi-millionaires insisting we're all in it together, they'll look even more ridiculous than the Tories themselves. Because when Brown complains about scurrilous bankers he has to explain why he's spent the last 14 years addressing bankers' galas with speeches that go "My lords, ladies and gentlemen. What do you want – less tax? De-regulation? Women? You just say it, I'll sort it."

And Mandelson will struggle to present himself as an opponent of the wealthy, despite claiming "Labour is in my blood". Maybe he'll say next "You know, whenever I'm on a trillionaire's yacht I always drink Brown Ale, because I am at heart a working man."

So the only coherent line they could put would be to say "The Tories are vicious. Whereas we are vicious but incompetent. So you can rest assured that when we try to cut your income in half, you have every chance of getting away with it because we'll leave all the paperwork on the bus. Vote Labour."

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