Hasan Suroor

The rich may be laughing all the way to the bank. But things are looking grim for the Labour Party.

This is the time of the year when ordinary Britons have their worst fears confirmed — namely, that a tiny elite is becoming richer while they struggle to make ends meet. For all its apparent vulgarity, The Sunday Times’ annual Rich List, which charts the fortunes of Britain’s super-rich, succeeds in highlighting the country’s skewed wealth distribution pattern even though that is not the primary purpose of the exercise.

This year’s list shows a massive rise in the collective wealth of Britain’s 1,000 richest people — ironically much of it amassed under the watch of the supposedly poor-friendly Labour government.

From a mere £99 billion in 1997, when Labour came to power, it has jumped to a whopping £412 billion prompting even right-wing commentators to sit up and take note of the dramatic increase.

Wealth quadrupled

The Sunday Times, which carried the list under the screaming headline “Rich get richer under Labour” on its front page, noted that the country’s richest 1000 had seen their wealth “quadruple” under Labour.

“Even under Gordon Brown’s brief premiership [he became prime minister last June] their fortunes have soared by 15 per cent just as the financial squeeze and faltering house prices have hit ordinary people,” it pointed out.

The compiler of the Rich List Philip Beresford sounded stumped by the sheer scale of the wealth accumulated by a small “super class” over the past decade. He pointed out that the 11 years of Labour rule had been “absolutely fantastic for the super-rich”. The rich, he said, had never had it so good even under the Tories, their natural cheerleader. “Having a friendly Labour government has been better than having a Tory one,” he commented.

Striking feature

Another striking feature of Britain’s economic scene, highlighted in the List, is that it is dominated by a new class of “global” businessmen with only six native Britons figuring in the top 20 of the country’s richest people. Indeed, our “own” Lakshmi Mittal is Britain’s richest man with a fortune of £27.7 billion followed by Roman Abramovich, the expatriate Russian oil baron and owner of Chelsea football club with a wealth of £11.7 billion, and a clutch of other Russian and Asian expatriates.

Embarrassingly for Prime Minister Gordon Brown the revelation that fat cats have become fatter under Labour comes at a time when his government is locked in a damaging dispute with millions of public sector employees, including teachers, civil servants and health and postal staff, over their demand for above-inflation wages. Leading Labour-affiliated unions have warned Mr. Brown of a long and hot “summer of discontent” prompting comparisons with the calamitous “winter of discontent” of 1978-79, which led to the defeat of the then Labour government of James Callaghan.

The rich may be laughing all the way to the bank but for the Labour Party, struggling in opinion polls ahead of Thursday’s crucial local elections, regarded as the first real electoral test of Mr. Brown’s leadership, things are looking grim.

Already speculation has started whether Mr. Brown is approaching the “Callaghan moment” with a new poll showing that the Tories have secured an unassailable 18-point lead over the Labour Party — their biggest in 20 years— and in the event of a general election “tomorrow” the Labour Party would lose.

Mr. Brown’s own popularity, which has been steadily declining, has slumped to an all-time low with only 19 per cent of the voters backing him. Anthony King, professor of government at the University of Essex, warned that this was the gloomiest poll from Labour’s point of view since Michael Foot’s disastrous leadership in the early 1980s,

The rich may have benefited from Labour’s policies but with the party’s fortunes in decline the question being asked is: how long are they going to stick with it?

“Racism in the air”

A senior pilot of Britain’s national carrier has alleged that its cockpit culture is rife with “casual racism”.

Captain Doug Maugham, who himself is white but married to an Asian, accused the airline of running a “canteen culture” in which it is regarded acceptable to make derogatory remarks about non-white passengers. He claimed that he was forced to go public because the management had failed to act on his complaints.

The allegation, which was splashed on the front page of the Left-wing Independent newspaper under the headline “A world of casual racism”, prompted the airline to promise action if the charge was found to be true.

“Any reports of such behaviour are taken extremely seriously and investigated as a matter of priority,” it said.

Recounting several incidents of allegedly racist behaviour of his colleagues , the 53-year-old pilot said derogatory references to non-white passengers were so “common” that they had almost become the “norm and rarely even noticed”.

Although covert racism is a way of life in Britain, the disclosure still surprised those who naively believed that such prejudices took flight once you were up there in the air with the crew more concerned about the safety of passengers rather than the colour of their skin.