By taking the high ground on party funding, Miliband has walked into a Tory trap

With the aid of the Lib Dems, the Tories plan to deliver an even bigger financial hit to Labour than that which will result from Miliband’s trade union reforms.

After the Conservatives entered power in 2010, chastened by their failure to win a majority against one of the least popular prime ministers in modern history, they identified three ways in which they could tilt the electoral landscape permanently in their favour.
 
The first was reform of the parliamentary boundaries. By equalising constituency sizes at roughly 76,000 voters, the Tories aimed to reverse the electoral bias in favour of Labour and improve their standing by up to 20 seats. This gambit was foiled when Conservative backbenchers sabotaged House of Lords reform and Nick Clegg responded by vetoing boundary reform, as the measure would have hurt his party disproportionately.
 
The second was Scottish independence. Were Scotland to secede from the UK, Labour would be stripped of 41 seats while the Conservatives would lose just one (as the joke in Westminster runs, Scotland has more giant pandas than Tories). Few doubt David Cameron’s sincerity when he vows to defend the Union with “every fibre” in his body, but not all in his party share his commitment. A Conservative MP recently told me: “If we’re close behind Labour in 2014, plenty of Tories will be crossing their fingers for a ‘Yes’ vote [to independence].” However, while the result will almost certainly be closer than most assume, even a campaigner as adroit as Alex Salmond will struggle to reverse the doubledigit poll lead the unionist side has held since the start of 2012.
 
The third was party funding reform. It is here that the Tories are now displaying their political muscle. In a remarkable act of chutzpah shortly before the summer recess, the party announced that the bill to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists would also include new curbs on political campaigning by “third parties” – read: trade unions. Masterminded by George Osborne, the legislation is designed as a pre-election gift to Tory candidates who have long complained about the union-funded phone banks, leaflets and adverts enjoyed by their Labour counterparts.
 
The bill will reduce the total cap on third party expenditure in the year before a general election from £989,000 to £390,000 and the cap on constituency spending to £9,750. It will also broaden the definition of spending to include staff time and office costs, rather than merely the “marginal cost” of leaflets and other materials, and regulate all activity that may affect the result of an election (such as criticism of government policy) even if it is not intended to do so.
 
Behind the legalese, the implications are significant. The TUC has warned that it could be forced to cancel its 2014 annual congress and any national demonstrations in the 12 months before the next election to avoid breaching the spending limit. In a signal of the Tories’ intent, the bill is being pushed through parliament with unusual haste. It will receive its second reading on 3 September and will begin its committee stage the following week, coinciding with Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC conference.
 
When Miliband addresses the union gathering in Bournemouth, it will be as a reformer determined to “mend” his party’s relations with the unions by ensuring that all members formally choose whether they wish to affiliate themselves to Labour.
 
In so doing, a close ally of Osborne’s told me, “He has walked into a trap.” While Miliband’s proposed reforms will require trade unionists to opt in to donating to Labour, they will not affect unions’ political funds, which support campaigning activity and pay for large, one-off donations to the party. In theory, this could allow unions to make up some of the estimated £7m Labour will lose in automatic affiliation fees by increasing their other contributions to the party.
 
Yet the Tories have spied an opportunity to challenge Miliband’s reformist credentials. With the support of the Lib Dems (“They want to make every party as poor as them,” one Labour MP quipped), they plan to amend the bill to require all trade unionists to opt in to paying the political levy as well as their donation to Labour. Having argued for democracy and transparency in one area, on what grounds will Miliband oppose the extension of these principles?
 
The Conservatives gleefully point to polling by Lord Ashcroft showing that only 30 per cent of Unite members would contribute to the union’s political fund under an opt-in system. An even more significant change, as floated by Clegg, would be to allow trade unionists to choose which parties they support. Again with reference to Ashcroft’s recent survey, the Tories note that 23 per cent of Unite members would vote for the Conservatives in an election tomorrow and that 7 per cent would vote for the Lib Dems. Armed with this evidence, the coalition parties are conspiring to deliver an even bigger hit to Labour funding than that which would result from Miliband’s reforms.
 
In response, although the Labour leader can point to the hypocrisy of a Tory party that believes in limiting donations from all but its millionaire supporters, he has no means of effecting change. As a Labour MP lamented to me, “We had our chance to introduce funding reform when we won three majorities after 1997. But Blair was too busy wooing the super rich.” In the absence of another funding scandal, there’s no prospect the Tories will agree to Miliband’s proposed donation cap of £5,000.
 
With his reforms to union funding, Miliband has sought to take the moral high ground. He has sacrificed millions in donations and one of his party’s main bargaining chips without securing any concessions in return. Now the Tories are intent on maximising the damage. As one Conservative MP said of the bill when I spoke to him, “Labour should remember that nice guys finish last.” If Miliband is to triumph in 2015 against a bareknuckle Conservative Party, he will need to disprove that adage.
Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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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