Tories may be wrong on national debt, but some are right on personal debt

The Bright Blue conference revealed some allies in the fight against the payday lenders

Last week I attended a conference run by the Tory "Fresh" group Bright Blue. There were plenty of faces I recognised and not all of them belonging to the "left wing" of the Tory party. After a few conversations it had become apparent that there is an anger across all wings of their party regarding the continued employment of George Osborne.

For the Tories, who fancy themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility (though as a Labour party member myself, I remain skeptical), the perception of Osborne's continued weak effort is the source of much frustration.

However to suggest that Osbornomics is the sum total of the financial thinking within the Conservative party would be an error. Take the area of finance that I'm interested in for example, that of personal debt – many in the party who are driven by principle rather than pride tend to sit on the correct side of the tracks here.

Justin Tomlinson MP, for example, the member for North Swindon, is one of the most vocal critics of the payday lending industry in parliament.

Earlier this year he addressed parliament during the debate on the clauses in the Financial Services Bill in support of imposing a total cost cap on loans that lenders can deal out to consumers. This, for him, is one way to ensure exploitative companies don't make life harder of those who are most vulnerable.

But Tomlinson understands that this cannot be a single policy enacted in isolation. This was why he, along with fellow Conservative member of parliament, Andrew Percy, authored a very interesting report on financial education. For them both, more focus on finance early on, can better gear up people when they are older to make healthy financial decisions – which can be hard to come by if times are tough on the pocket with more and more payday lenders popping up on our high streets.

With Percy, his interest in bad debt stems from his own problems with it. Though he has never had to take out a payday loan, he has been in the position of owing tens of thousands of pounds – for which as of 2011 he was still paying off.

"I now pay about £600 a month to clear off all of my credit cards which I've had to roll into a loan since my election", he told the BBC last year.

Another Tory MP, Tracey Crouch, member for Chatham and Aylesford, also came into focusing on debt issues as a consequence of her own past. When I spoke to her earlier this year she told me that her debts were down to "youthful stupidity" and her £15,000 credit card and store card debt was largely the outcome of living a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, which some of her peers could.

Crouch insisted that there is a positive side to credit, indeed most regard it as the sign of a healthy economy. However she herself has seen the negative side of it. She is particularly concerned about those who are termed the "underbanked", namely those those who still have bills to manage and cashflow problems to overcome, but are restricted in their access to mainstream credit products.

Given the rate at which the payday loans industry is growing, the temptation to see this as an easy way out for the very vulnerable increases. The government has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure all consumers do not fall foul to expensive loans, but also many of the barriers of alternatives such as credit unions need to be overcome too.

For example the Association of British Credit Unions (ABCUL) still haven't tapped into social media, and trying to raise credit union membership that way, whereas payday lenders such as Wonga have done this very successfully.

One person who does know a thing or two about credit unions is Damian Hinds MP, the member for East Hampshire. He chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Credit Unions, and is a vice chairman of the APPG on Debt.

His politics are perhaps most interesting because he is a self-described free-market Conservative. He told me that when he first became an MP he was convinced that market solutions would drive down expensive lenders and anything the state could do would only frustrate this process.

However, he has since changed tack on this, deciding that "normal market rules don't apply with payday lenders". Now Hinds realises that the state can play a part in helping a create a fairer lending market since all evidence points out that the invisible hand is typically absent.

The legacy of Osbornomics will be negative – and Conservatives themselves are as adamant as anyone that this is the case. David Cameron is not being a renegade, but a fool for keeping him. But the Conservative party is not without sound economic minds – and on an issue as important as personal debt this is proven most forcibly.

A payday loan company in Birkenhead. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage