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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.