Move your money: We need new models of banking, not just new banks

Introducing "competition" to banking won't work if it's just Tesco Bank taking over

Another week, another banking scandal. More tokenistic contrition from bankers, feigned outrage from politicians and protestations of ignorance from regulators. Feel familiar anyone?

But this time its different. The revelation that Barclays, and pretty much every other global bank, has been systematically rigging interest rates to bolster their profits has changed British banking for good.

Most importantly, it has broken the widespread consumer apathy that characterised our retail banking market.

Since the financial crisis there has been a steady flow of consumers out of the big 5 and into mutuals such as building societies, the Cooperative and credit unions – 2.8 million all in all.

But in the wake of the Libor scandal this trend has increased exponentially with Nationwide reporting an 85 per cent week-on-week increase in new account enquiries, the Co-operative 25 per cent and some of the smaller ethical banks and credit unions an increase of over 200 per cent.

Significantly, the other big banks have not reported a similar surge in footfall. In fact, customers are starting to leave not just Barclays but all the big banks in favour of mutual and ethical providers.

A recent YouGov poll found that 83 per cent of respondents thought "the other banks are just as bad as Barclays". People realise the problems in our banking system are systemic and so they are moving to a meaningful alternative.

There are rumours that both RBS and Barclays have been called into the FSA to discuss the number of depositors moving. People are beginning to move their money in significant numbers. That hurts the big banks which are increasingly dependent on deposits for funding as the markets dry up in the shadow of the storm in Europe.

The Libor scandal has also changed the political landscape around banking reform. This banking scandal is swiftly becoming a political crisis as the Bank of England, senior regulators and politicians from both sides of the House become embroiled.

No one should be surprised that greed and self-interest in the City has had a corrosive effect in Westminster. The sheer concentration of wealth and power in such a small number of institutions means that the establishment must do whatever it takes to keep the gravy train going – irrespective of how destructive the banks' behaviour has become. And not least of all because we rely on the banks to keep our speculative housing market inflating and thus home-owning voters feeling wealthy, despite their stagnating real incomes.

The defence mechanism on both sides of the House has been mindless mud slinging and political point scoring. Last week both parties have tried to pull back from these playground spats as it becomes apparent that they are only further eroding any remaining trust the public have in politicians to fix this problem.

This is the background against which Miliband’s speech earlier this week must be judged. In his description of "stewardship banking", Miliband cited "a banking system where no one bank feels either too big to fail or too powerful to be challenged. But where all banks face real competition and customers have proper choices."

His solution? To force banks sell off branches to create more "challenger" banks. Miliband is right to argue that there must be more competition in our retail banking sector as more competition means more choice for consumers – but it must be meaningful choice. Banks continue to close branches in low-income areas because they’re costly to run, their main value being as a sales floor for more complicated and profitable products. The only "challengers" able to buy up branches will be the ilk to Tesco Bank, or more of the same.

The traditional banking model is not working for swathes of our society. Not only small businesses but also entire communities and geographical areas, which are becoming credit deserts.

These can be profitable markets to serve. It is this market opportunity which high cost and payday lenders, which are becoming all too ubiquitous on our high streets, are taking advantage of. But there is another way.

The UK has a thriving sector of local and mutual financial institutions, from the big building societies down to local community finance institutions and credit unions. These institutions have already proved that there is a different way of doing things, and don’t need public subsidies that run into hundreds of billions.

Reforms must be focused on supporting and growing the socially responsible financial institutions already out there and already working. It must also enable consumers to drive change by making it easier to switch and forcing the banks to be fully transparent in terms of both their lending and investments and the way they market their products.

Politicians, local authorities, business and the third sector can all play an active role in this. Leading by example and moving their own accounts in order to strengthen socially responsible financial institutions as well as build trust and confidence in them.

The public have woken up to what a better banking system looks like. It may not be radical but it could be revolutionary Now its time for our politicians to do the same.

Metro Bank, a new bank launched recently. But is it a true competitor? Photograph: Getty Images

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide