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Kitty Ussher, MP
MSc Economics

 

Kitty Ussher


Kitty Ussher is a determined woman. Aged 34, she is one of the youngest members of Parliament. “Being a Labour MP is the job I have always wanted. I grew up under Thatcher and I hated what she was doing. I felt the country was crumbling and that she was making it worse. I saw politics as the way to change things and, if you feel strongly about something, you should do something about it. I felt very angry,” she says. So she studied politics, philosophy and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, and joined the Labour Party.

In 1993, Kitty started work as a parliamentary researcher and, during the following years, she worked for Paul Boateng, Martin O’Neill, Kim Howells and Adam Ingram. In 1996, she embarked on a two-year, part-time Masters degree in Economics at Birkbeck. She says, “During the first year, I was working for two Labour MPs in opposition. But I knew that I would probably lose my job if they got into government, because I wasn’t sufficiently senior to be taken on. I realised that I was working myself out of a job.”

“We had a really important piece of coursework to hand in on 1 May, 1997 (the date of the general election which brought New Labour to power). I asked for an extension. I was working on something else that had the same deadline. So, after Labour’s glorious victory, I lost my job and still had to get this piece of coursework in!”

She was not unemployed for long. Her Birkbeck qualification enabled her to land a job in The Economist intelligence unit. She then spent two years at a think tank, the Centre for European Reform, followed by a year as chief economist of Britain in Europe, a now defunct lobbying group. She became special adviser to Patricia Hewitt at the Department for Trade and Industry in 2001. In parallel, she became a local councillor in Lambeth, a position she held from 1998 to 2002.

From here, Kitty began her hard slog towards securing a parliamentary seat. She started visiting Burnley in Lancashire, where the Labour incumbent was about to retire, and gradually got to know members of the local party who would choose his successor. But in October 2003, disaster struck. A trade union leader with great influence in the area endorsed her main rival.

A few days later, at the annual Labour Party conference, Kitty says: “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry Kitty. Are you trying another seat?’” Kitty left the conference early and went straight to Burnley. “The way to get nominated is through securing the votes of every single member of the local Labour party. Burnley is industrial with strong manufacturing trade unions. My main rival was an employee of Amicus. My rival got the nomination from Amicus but I had done enough work on the ground and it is one member, one vote. I knew the individual Amicus members best.”

Five months later, she was chosen as the candidate. At this year’s general election, she won the seat. Fighting the general election in Burnley, which suffered three days of race riots in 2001, brought certain challenges. In local elections held in May 2003, the British National Party gained enough seats to become the official opposition to Labour. The BNP has since collapsed after in-fighting but more than 10% of the votes cast at the 2005 general election were for the BNP candidate: about the same as for the Tory candidate.

Kitty says, “Burnley has the BNP and, if you are going to do something with your life, then fighting fascism should be it. The BNP is trying to tap into a vein of public opinion that makes them look credible. But they are far right: they are racist and homophobic. They try to stoke up fear and they breed off a sense of powerlessness and futility. They like rioters because it sets up a climate of fear and desperation. They pit people against each other. I fundamentally believe that hope will triumph over fear, and that people want what’s best for their community. We need to campaign positively. The Labour Party believes in Burnley, whereas the BNP just lashes out.”

Looking at where Kitty is now, how does she look back at her time at Birkbeck? “The experience of coming to Birkbeck in the evenings meant that I realised that I could do two things at once,” she says. It’s a technique she employs at present: just five weeks after her election in May 2005, she gave birth to a daughter, Lizzie.

“Birkbeck enabled me to call myself an economist and I would not have been able to do my job, or had the confidence to do my job, without it,” she adds. “In public life, it helps to have a basic grasp of economics. It changed my life.”