What is our common purpose?

Former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Kitty Ussher writes about public services and the economy ahead of the Progress Annual Conference.

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Former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Kitty Ussher will be speaking at the Progress Annual Conference tomorrow, which Left Foot Forward is media-partnering; for tickets see here

Imagine we weren’t policy-makers in Britain but in a small emerging economy that nobody took any notice of but nevertheless had big ambitions to succeed. What would our attitude to the private sector be then?

Progress-The-New-Centre-Ground-Annual-Conference-2012I reckon there would be a real commitment to a partnership approach with the most exciting sectors, a close understanding of their business needs and possible growth trajectories, and a sense of teamwork, with each doing their part to turn that vision into reality.

Small business and entrepreneurship would be encouraged, tax rates set at simple levels in a pro-enterprise way.

There would be a huge commitment to investing in the future – be it education or infrastructure – and a desire to leapfrog other nations as well as learning from their mistakes.

It would be taken as read that we were striving to achieve a far better standard of living for our children and grandchildren, that we had a responsibility to grab the opportunity on offer to achieve that.

In Britain the situation is far more complex. We already have entrenched traditions and institutions, some of which work better than others. And our economy is already large – the fourth largest in the world – and in places exists despite, rather than because of, the government.

But there are still some lessons to be learnt from imagining we were the emergent challenger, not the incumbent player.


See also:

How can progressives conquer the new centre-ground? 24 Apr 2012


First, we need a greater sense of vision. What is Britain for? Where are we going and how can public and private work together to achieve that? Why can’t we aspire to be the leader, leapfrogging others in technology and infrastructure, rather than allowing other niche players to do so?

Giving a clear sense of direction of where economic activity is expected to grow would be a good start.

We could start with the most modern infrastructure, or the easiest place to re-train mid career, the strongest survival rate for new businesses, or an asset-based welfare system that gives greater financial control to people when times are hard.

Second, we need to be prepared to intervene. This does not mean handouts. Indeed many of the industry schemes that do amount to taxpayer support to already-large companies could be phased out.

But it does mean using the power of the state to do what companies find hard, such as using procurement to push forward the boundaries of technology, having transparency and predictability in tax policy, championing British interests abroad, investing in a panoply of market failures especially education, and capturing the imagination of the rest of the world as to what can be achieved here.

Of course it means ending exploitation and protecting public goods such as the environment – but it also means being innovative to create markets that achieve our desired aims, be they to reward investment in green electricity or create retail products that allow people to save exclusively for future training needs.

We have a good record in creating institutions with a public service ethos that people trust; there is no contradiction between that and simultaneously creating the markets to meet peoples’ needs.

Third, we should not be afraid to address some of the structural weaknesses of our economy. The financial regulators are already responding to the weaknesses that led to the financial crisis by raising the capital requirements of banks. There is nothing wrong with being a global financial centre; well regulated, it should be a source of pride. But there is something wrong when the property prices in the south east are so different to those in the north east.

The only solution to this is to make property in the south less desirable, and the only way to do that is to tax it to a greater extent. That will make economic activity and talent move north, which will make our economy more balanced, although the political difficulties of the transition will mean it will have to be a phased.

The government should also use tax explicitly to smooth the economic cycle. The next housing bubble should be tamed through aggressive taxation on house sales; the less high things rise, the less far they will have to fall.

Indeed – fourth – we should look again at our entire taxation system. The Mirrlees Review published last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies put forward an exciting collection of changes that would not only be more progressive and environmentally friendly, but remove distortions in the economy that had the potential substantially to raise the growth rate.

As well as an up-to-date property taxation system, they also propose widespread congestion charging, taxing excessive returns to capital rather than the interest on normal retail savings and finally sorting out the differences in the tax treatment of debt and equity finance.

Finally, government should not favour one form of organisational structure over another. Just as there are good army captains and bad ones, so there are effective and ineffective leaders in both the public, private, mutual and employee-owned sectors. What matters is motivation, and different people are motivated in different ways at different times for different purposes.

A public sector ethos can be a wonderfully empowering environment to achieve change in the delivery of public services, but so can the profit motive for a group of entrepreneurs. Organisations can be set up differently depending on what they are trying to achieve – none of these forms are superior.

The role of government is to provide an atmosphere, locally and nationally, of hope, optimism and empowerment so that as many people as possible can get out there and do what it is they are motivated to do, through whatever route works best for them. That should be our common purpose.


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15 Responses to “What is our common purpose?”

  1. Political Planet

    What is our common purpose?: Former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Kitty Ussher writes about public service… http://t.co/MamsWoqL

  2. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – What is our common purpose? http://t.co/DusfnfHq

  3. Lanie Ingram

    What is our common purpose? http://t.co/ySUVUFLy by @KittyUssher #Economy #PublicServices #PAC12

  4. Pulp Ark

    What is our common purpose? http://t.co/PK8nWtnU #GoodSociety #economy #KittyUssher #Progress #muslim #tcot #sioa

  5. Shifting Grounds

    'What is Britain for? Where are we going and how can public and private work together to achieve that?' http://t.co/TpnQ45l2 @kittyussher

  6. BevR

    RT @leftfootfwd: What is our common purpose? http://t.co/1DV1qMQU

  7. Duncan Davis

    RE: @leftfootfwd Ironically 'Progress' are stuck in 1997. Your view that we can make significant improvements simply … http://t.co/hklBGfOw

  8. Duncan Davis

    Ironically ‘Progress’ are stuck in 1997. Your view that we can make significant improvements simply by tweaking the edges of capitalism is naive at best. The economic system is fundamentally flawed and so needs to be fundamentally changed. We need economic democracy: give workers the right to turn companies they work for into cooperatives, encourage cooperatives above other models (none of this ‘all organisational structures are equally good’ rubbish) and reverse the disastrous privatisation started by Thatcher and continued by Blair and Cameron. Progress needs to stop pretending it is of the left and go join the Tory party – which is clearly their ideological home.

  9. Anonymous

    Easy: You CAN’T win a majority without the left.

    In fact, there needs to be an outright purge at this point before you can get the left to vote for you again.

    The suggestions are also a muddle – taxing the poor heavily for being in cities where the jobs are, but making it impossible economically for them to own their own transport, for instance. Frankly – you’re the people who NEED to be purged from Labour before they can win a majority again.

  10. Anonymous

    I’m not sure I agree with the concept of the right to turn companies into cooperatives, even as a mutualist. It’s far too radical, and far too much of a land-grab. Certainly companies with worker-ownership (and not necessarily entire – a significant proportion can also lead to change) should have advantages, but this can be handled with i.e. a reduction of tax on dividends or the equivalent (John Lewis’s annual payments for instance) rather than explicitly changing the corporate tax rates.

    And I think you underestimate the importance of opening up the retail banking field to cooperatives, something which needs to be done – without stock market investment wings, much of the new restrictive legislation simply shouldn’t apply to them. For small companies, small investments by that kind of banks is critical.

    As to privatisation, I’m practical. The trains, for instance, need to be taken back into public ownership, but this can be done by refusing to renew the TOC contacts, and buying their assets for knock-down prices rather than seizures of private property.

    Certainly there are some issues – national express closing down coach services where they can make more cash from trains services along those routes – for instance which need investigation for potential charges, but…

  11. Blarg1987

    I agree to most of the above, it would also make sense to get ride of any private sector subsidy that is provided on services on the grounds that the private sector claims it can bee more efficent and offer services cheaper then the public sector, and this will make them sink or swim as capitalis is emant to be about.

    These savings I am sure would go a long way to reduce the deficiet and change hard line opinions on the private sector, either it will prove that the private sector can do it, or that the it requires state support in whcih case any future state subsidy should be seen as a buy in of the state into a company untill ownership is achieved.

  12. JC

    I think there is a lot of good here. However, the idea of making the South East too expensive for plebs to live in sounds rather too old fashioned upper class to me. How about moving the centre of government to the midlands. This would draw the lobbyists, media and many of their hanger ons out of London, allowing it to be a city of industry, retail and pleasure. It would then attract people on its own merits, and not the wannabe politicians and media types that it currently has.

  13. Anonymous

    Hmm, interesting that Labour should talk about “progressives” while forming administrations with the Tories in Scotland. More and more every day seems to be policy now, rather than expediency. It seems like Labour has found it’s niche in Scotland and it’s what we on the left have always thought. Tartan Tories.

  14. Prateek Buch

    @gimpyblog see this collection of, err, not sure what exactly from Labour 'thinker'… http://t.co/WuTJjdcr

  15. TheCreativeCrip

    RE: @leftfootfwd Ironically 'Progress' are stuck in 1997. Your view that we can make significant improvements simply … http://t.co/hklBGfOw

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