Provocative, entertaining, infuriating: I'm going to miss Louise Mensch

How many British backbenchers are reliably interesting?

So, farewell then, Louise Mensch. I'm going to miss you.

How many backbenchers are reliably provocative, entertaining - and occasionally infuriating? Very few. Our 24-hour news cycle, and the "fishing for gaffes" this inevitably encourages, mean that most junior MPs keep their mouths firmly shut on anything which doesn't directly concern them. (Incidentally, this is why we all fall on the latest story about Boris Johnson whipping Princess Anne with a conger eel or being "ironically" offensive like a man dying of thirst.)

Nowhere was Mensch more effective than on Twitter. Politicians' feeds tend to be a blather of trilling proclamations about their constituency duties, interspersed with solemn attacks on the other side. Not so with Mensch. Every so often, she would toss some chum into the piranha-swamp of lobby correspondents, just for the hell of it. 

Her name change. Her announcement she'd have to be quick at the select committee questioning James Murdoch because she needed to pick up the kids. Her photoshoot for GQ. Her Newsnight appearances. Her alleged facelift. Her mad decision to launch a social network named after her. All these were endlessly pored over, probed for What They Said About Society.

Possibly my favourite Magic Menschment, though, was her admission she'd taken drugs with the violinist Nigel Kennedy. This is how to respond when someone accuses you of getting high in a club in your twenties:

Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Nigel Kennedy, whom I remember with affection. I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night.

Of course, there were plenty of journalists who were ready to dismiss her as a tedious controversialist -- yet this never prevented their papers writing up her latest provocation. (Just a few days ago she stirred up a perfect storm about Labour supporters wishing Margaret Thatcher dead.) 

For all that Mensch was an attention-seeker, the British political press liked having its attention sought. And, presumably, its readers lapped up stories about Mensch even as they loudly proclaimed how much they didn't care about her. Clicks don't lie.

By resigning mid-parliament, in the quiet August recess, Mensch has once again guaranteed herself coverage far out of proportion to her importance. Stand by for articles on whether women can have it all, which will completely ignore the fact that very few women marry someone who lives on a different continent. Brace yourself for pious warbling about her lack of commitment to politics (as if most of our politicians are motivated by nothing but the highest ideals of public service). But most of all, prepare for British politics to get a lot duller. 

We created Louise Mensch: built her up through our desire for someone, somewhere, to say something interesting. And we'll miss her more than she misses us. 

Louise Mensch: so long and thanks for all the LOLs. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation