If you want to live ethically, start with your bank account

Moving your money is an opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better, writes Co-operatives UK's Ed Mayo.

Do you have a bank account? If so, congratulations. You have a vote in what kind of economy the UK has moving forward.

This week is National Ethical Investment Week, an event which over recent years has become a great way to celebrate the mix of green and ethical funds open to those with the money to invest.

A bank account isn't usually considered as a classic investment product. But if we are going to improve the ethics of the world of finance, it is a good place to start.

To begin with, any money you have in your account is invested by your bank. It is not an investment that you see, but for every pound on deposit, your bank can lend a multiple of this in the wider economy. Taken together, as UK consumers, our bank accounts have money in credit at the end of a typical day of around £100bn.

A number of current accounts do now pay direct interest for the money you hold, even if it is still only a small proportion of conventional accounts that pay more than 0.5 per cent interest.

But there is another reason to consider where you hold your bank account, because it is the building block for the wider financial services sector. We can't complain that banks are less than fully ethical if we don't ourselves consider ethics when we choose who to bank with.

Current accounts are a cash cow for the big banks. One way or another, they make £152 out of every bank account they have. This is more than they earn from savings and credit cards put together. 

Current accounts are also something that most people have a choice over. There are 64 million bank accounts in the UK. So, where only around 15% of people are investors in the sense of putting money into stocks, shares and pooled funds, 90 per cent of us have a bank account and can have a say through our money.

The Move Your Money campaign has emerged this year as a cause célèbre. Launched in February 2012, the campaign calls on people to switch their account, current or savings, away from shareholder banks that helped to cause the economic crisis, and towards co-operative and mutual banks, such as credit unions and building societies.

Because they are not owned by external shareholders, they can put the interests of their customers first. Worldwide, customer-owned banks have been far safer than shareholder and state-owned banks over the last five years. No less importantly, your money is reinvested locally rather than going into the global carousel of bonuses and high finance. If you switch banks to an ethical bank, your money is being used for good – so it is not just fair to you but fair to others.

Since the campaign launched, around half a million people have switched accounts. The UK had long been the country with the lowest switching rate in Europe. More than the actions of any regulator, the Move Your Money campaign, in tune with the times, has changed that. And it is still early days.

Madeleine is one I know of many that have switched to the Co-operative Bank in recent months. "The online banking is different, but it all meets my needs and the switching was pretty simple." The switching process is far smoother than people may fear. You ask your new bank to set it in train and within 10 days of the application being approved, all your standing orders and arrangements should be transferred and up and running. 

Sandra has switched to Nationwide, one of fifty building societies still operating in the UK. She found that "banks are only interested if you have a lot of money and, as pensioners we don’t have a lot. But Nationwide was different. I know they want your money, I’m not saying they don’t, but they have more time for you, to explain the ins and outs."

Credit unions, which are financial co-operatives for savings and loans, are also among the providers that have benefited from switching as the larger credit unions now offer current accounts or debit cards that give access to ATM networks.

Ethical Investment should not just be about feeling good or having something to talk about at a dinner party but changing the way the financial system works. The call to move your money is a genuine and positive opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better.

Make it the one thing that you do this week.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

The Move Your Money campaign outside a Barclays. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State