Occupy the Bank

The surprising new radicalism on Threadneedle Street.

At last we are getting some hard-hitting ideas about how to reign in and reform free-booting finance capitalism. From those camped outside St Paul's? A new left wing think-tank? Perhaps a leading financier gone-rogue in the manner of Soros or Buffett?

No, nothing so predictable. The new ideas are flowing from that well known citadel of radicalism in Threadneedle Street. It's not just the Bank of England's now familiar, yet still striking, use of aggressive and unorthodox monetary policy that best captures this new disposition. Nor is it the fact that Mervyn King led the way in calling for far-reaching structural reform of the banking system, making it more difficult for the government to recoil from the proposals in the recent Vickers report. In fact, the new radicalism isn't really about the Bank Governor -- rather it's coming from other senior figures working for him.

This week Andrew Haldane who leads on Financial Stability -- a name you may not have heard before, but certainly one you should watch out for -- made a powerful proposal about containing the pay of the overlords of finance. His argument is that both short-term investors and bank executives have extracted huge rents from the finance sector, at the expense of other groups like tax-payers and long-term investors. His suggestion is that rather than link bankers' pay to share value (return on equity) it should be tied instead to the return made on assets (for example, bank loans). A technocratic tweak? Well, it's one that bites. Haldane points out that if this approach had been followed in the US over recent decades then CEOs of top banks would have had to scrape by with salaries a mere 68 times the typical household income rather than their current ones which are 500 times that of the ordinary family.

And this comes hot on the heels of Mr Haldane's historically rooted and empirically robust critique of City short-termism -- "mounting myopia" as he terms it -- as well as his hard-headed assessment of the still unfolding consequences of the personal debt tsunami and its implications for the real economy and households.

None of this is to suggest that Mervyn King himself is becoming a force for radicalism. The Governor's widely reported opposition to the Bank getting involved in direct lending to businesses, reiterated yesterday at the Treasury Select Committee, reflects a deep rooted institutional conservatism on this front. His recent remarks about how until the recent eurozone crisis things were "on track" with the UK economy look a bit detached, and have already attracted the ire of some commentators. And that's leaving to one side his hawkish views on fiscal stimulus and controversial role at the time the coalition was formed.

But this doesn't change the fact that the Bank is becoming one of the most interesting homes for fresh and original thinking about the nature of serious economic and financial reform that we desperately need. That's not a sentence you could have written before.

So what's changed? Part of it is doubtless the Bank flexing its intellectual muscle in advance of it reclaiming regulatory powers that it no doubt feels it should never have lost to the FSA in the first place. Another explanation is that the genuine and laudable desire among its leading lights to get ahead of the systemic risks facing economic stability in Britain (and contemporary capitalism more generally). Which in part, at least, will be spurred by the widely shared belief that the Bank fell badly behind events in the recent past: both in failing to see the crisis coming, and then in reacting too slowly in its early days. On top of this, it may also be that Mervyn King, the career academic, may have become comfortable playing the role of "department head", allowing his leading lights at the Bank to think aloud.

Whatever the reason, it's a welcome development. Let's hope the free-thinking in Threadneedle St continues -- and that both the Chancellor and his Labour counterpart are listening. They need to be.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.