Last week, I got caught up in the first media controversy of the general election campaign when I told BBC radio presenter Emma Barnett that Britain shouldn’t have billionaires. My remarks were greeted with performative incredulity from Barnett, outrage among those in the Tory Twittersphere, and support from comrades and colleagues in Love Socialism.
As pointed out on Twitter during the furore, to put how much a billion is into perspective, a million seconds is 12 days; a billion seconds is 31 years. If I saved a million pounds every year since battle of Hastings to today, I would still not be a billionaire! This is a level of wealth that nobody should aspire to, and that billionaires exist in our society at all is the result of decades of policy failure at both the national and international levels.
The UK often tops the list of billionaires per head, and the country now has more than 150 billionaires, with many living in London – the city with more billionaires than any other in the world. This shows our economy is run in the interests of the few, not the many, and that our tax system is utterly broken. Recent Tory policies such as the cut in corporation tax have further tilted the balance away from workers and towards the super wealthy.
But surely, you might say, people who make that much money deserve it to some extent? The reality shows that this is not the case – according to an Oxfam report, one third of global billionaire wealth comes from inheritance, whilst another third comes from “crony connections to government and monopoly”. The other third comes from a capitalist system that necessarily exploits working people for their labour. While some billionaires may have worked hard at some point, have they really worked billions of times harder than nurses or cleaners doing 40+ hour weeks?
These billionaires are not cash generators as many on the right argue – they are cash hoarders. And what is the point of being a billionaire if they can’t spend all that money? Simple: access to power.
Although British elections and parties are subject to strict laws around funding (unlike the United States with its political action committees), billionaires wield massively disproportionate influence on our political system. Billionaires and other super wealthy individuals have easy access to power, with key Tory donors regularly dining and going to events with senior figures in government. These are, of course, the very same people who have benefited from forty years of privatisation, carving up our economy and driving it towards a toxic financialisation. This oligarchic influence and power is corrosive in any democracy, shattering the level playing field.
As I made clear in my last Love Socialism column, Brexit now only stands to benefit billionaires, with the likes of hedge fund manager Crispin Odey shorting the pound and pumping thousands into pro-Brexit groups and Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign. The prospect of a deregulated economy – a “Singapore-on-Thames” – is the great post-Brexit prize, and exactly what the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg are aiming for. Meanwhile, we have a Prime Minister who, during that very leadership campaign, spoke with pride of how from the 2008 crash onwards he “stuck up for the bankers” and “defended them” more than any other Conservative politician.
While the PM spent the referendum campaign talking about “taking back control” (despite protecting the banks), a real project to do that would start by curtailing the power of the super rich. And when Labour gets into power we will do just that, with a raft of nationalisations bringing rail (sorry Mr Branson), mail, water and energy back into public ownership and under democratic control. But we must also beat Brexit, the Tories’ great big billionaire con, and the divisive, damaging ideas behind it to stand a chance of succeeding.
Finally, while the Tories are backed by billionaires and other super rich donors, Labour is backed by the people: we’ve raised an incredible £1m from ordinary people in just 10 days, with the average donation being just £26. We know whose side we are on, and we know whose side they are on. If the Tories win and get their neoliberal Brexit through, they will set our economy up to serve the super rich even more slavishly than it currently does for years and years to come, taking even more wealth and power away from the people.
If we win, we will see the most significant shift of wealth and power towards working class people in this country since the war. We will also hold a democratic final say on Brexit, giving us the opportunity to stop it and get on with fixing our economy and healing the divisions in our society. That’s what makes this election so important: it’s about your class interest and our precious democracy. All out on the #LabourDoorstep.