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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.