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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle