Thomas Piketty speaks to the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley on April 23, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Interview: Stewart Wood responds to Thomas Piketty

The Labour peer and Miliband strategist on how the party would seek to reduce inequality.

Thomas Piketty was in parliament yesterday to discuss his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century with Labour peer and Miliband strategist Stewart Wood. Shortly before the event, I spoke to Wood about Piketty's work and about how Labour would seek to reduce inequality.

Q: How do you think Labour’s existing policies respond to Piketty’s thesis?

A: What Thomas has provided is an intellectual foundation for a lot of the things we’ve been talking about, which is the sense that, particularly in the last 30 years, but more broadly, there has been detachment of wealth-earners and income-earners at the top end of the scale from the rest of the country - and this isn’t just a concern for people on the left who care about inequality, this is a concern for people who care about the health of the market economy, and what’s encouraging is that people on the right of the political spectrum share this worry as well.

What the book suggests is that you have to understand the nature of capital if you want to get the solutions right. We’ve talked about a mansion tax, we’ve been prepared to talk about the top rate of income tax going back to 50p.

We’ve also talked about this horrible word “predistribution”, which is getting at the heart of something that Thomas talks about in the book, which is that if we really think that the drivers of inequality rest with the distinction between capital returns being high and growth incomes being lower than you have to think about ways in the long-term that you can redistribute assets so that people can get access to greater income-earning potential beyond what they just earn in their jobs. That is the biggest challenge for us and that points you in areas to do with education but also areas to do with the workplace, and I think that Labour in the recent past hasn’t taken the idea of the workplace as seriously as I think we now need to.

Those are the areas of focus, and in a mansion tax and income tax we’ve got some response on the tax agenda. There are areas in education and human capital where we need to respond further.

Q: Beyond a mansion tax, what about wealth taxes more generally? Is that something you’ll be looking at for the manifesto?

A: I’m not sure the global wealth tax in the last section of Thomas’s book is going to be in the Labour manifesto, I suspect it won’t. But I think beneath that, in that section, there’s a lot of very interesting stuff about transparency of asset ownership and capital, about international cooperation, and that is in the grain of things we’ve been talking about.

Q: There’s obviously a national dimension to this, but there’s also an international one. In a globalised era, some question whether you can have social democracy in one country any more. What do you think are the changes needed to avoid a race to the bottom?

A: There are clearly forces, to use Thomas’s terminology, of divergence and convergence here. In some respects, you can’t have a structured approach to financial capital, for example, without taking international cooperation seriously, of course that’s right. Governments left and right have realised that, although progress internationally has been pretty slow so far, but you need to have a consistent approach across the continent and globally more generally.

In other respects, I think you can make progress as a nation-state. I passionately believe that if you take the idea of making our educational policy work for the benefit of those who don’t have access to inherited wealth and existing wealth, but you actually make the education system effective, in spreading the ability of people to earn greater money and to access capital, I think that gives us a massive productive advantage as a country, it goes with the grain of those who care about being competitive as an international economy as well as those who care about distribution and social justice, so there are things you can do at the national level.

Q: Does it worry you that the legitimacy of the EU, the institution that more any other has the ability to set cross-national standards, is being questioned as never before, and that the potential for it to go further is now so limited?

A: I think that you’re right that we live an era when people’s faith in the European Union, not just in Britain but elsewhere, as a body that can set standards across countries is weakening, there’s no doubt about that. Part of our job as a Labour Party that passionately believes in the European Union is to seek to be reformers of it, so that over time, I’m not saying you can do this overnight, but over time, you can get some more faith in a reformed EU’s ability to make those kind of decisions, so it’s a long-term challenge but it’s the right one for us to be taking on.

Q: Looking further ahead, do you have a sense of how much a future Labour government could reduce inequality by?

A: I worked in the New Labour government and we did a huge amount of redistribution and investment in public services that benefited the bottom 50 per cent and we still saw inequality creeping up, so I’m not underestimating the ability of one government in one period to reverse the trends that Professor Piketty’s book talks about across centuries.

But we do need to make the pursuit of a more equal Britain something that is fundamental to policy, from education, to Treasury policy, to industrial policy. I don’t think it’s the only thing that matters, but it’s a crucial thing that matters and it gets at the heart of something in our country that is not working at the moment, which is squeezed incomes in the middle that don’t have sufficient skill levels and where there’s a productivity problem. We need to address the problem of our national competitiveness at the same time that we address the pressures on people in the middle and the bottom of our income distribution.

Q: Do you think you could enshrine that focus on reducing inequality in law or through a particular institution?

A: I’m not sure that targets in this area are the way forward. The trends are so multiple and so difficult that I think just setting an arbitrary target is not the way to do this. What you need here, maybe it’s old fashioned, but you need a debate, you need resolve, you need it to be in the bloodstream across the political spectrum. I don’t think it should just be the ambition of the Labour Party, it should be the ambition of all politicians to seek to build a country where you don’t have this detachment of those at the top from the rest, I think that’s bad for a country whatever your politics.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation