Bank bonuses and the Barclays myth

We, the taxpayers, saved Barclays too!

From the BBC:

Banking giant Barclays has seen its full-year profits increase by 92 per cent to £11.6bn ($18.2bn) in 2009.

The news story goes on to add:

The bank, which did not take any direct state help during the financial crisis, said its total bonus payouts for staff had been reined in to £2.7bn.

First, the fact that multibillion-pound bonuses in the midst of a recession are described as having been "reined in" says all you need to know about the excess and greed that has blighted the banking sector in recent years.

Second, notice the key disclaimer slipped in, early on:

The bank, which did not take any direct state help during the financial crisis . . .

I've heard a version of this line again and again, in the context of Barclays, ever since the government's bailout of the banks in late 2008. Last night on LBC, for example, the business reporter went out of her way to remind listeners that Barclays hadn't taken any government money -- in other words, it is less culpable for the crash and less accountable to the public for what it does with its profits now.

What a load of rubbish.

Barclays, as the Beeb's business editor Robert Peston points out later on, in the same story, benefited indirectly:

. . . from a windfall generated by the emergency rescue of the global economy undertaken by governments and central banks, an emergency rescue that was needed in large part because of the havoc wreaked by the excessive risk-taking of banks.

The banking sector, which Barclays is part of, would not exist today were it not for the billions stumped up by British taxpayers in the form of bailout money, short-term loans, loan guarantees and quantitative easing. Even the Barclays boss, John Varley, has acknowledged the crucial role played by the government in rescuing the City as a whole:

There are two ways I would say the system as a whole benefited generically.

One was in the injection of liquidity undertaken by the Bank of England and a new structure put in place in March 2008.

And the other was the making available of guarantees from government for funding undertaken by banks.

It is important to recognise that in each case the banks were encouraged to use these new structures that were put in place and we did.

It is also important to recognise that we were required and we did pay a price for these things but I'm not trivialising the importance of the intervention. It was important.

So Barclays has to behave responsibly. Massive bonuses are unjustified, irresponsible, offensive and dangerous.

Let's not forget either that Barclays only avoided crashing like Royal Bank of Scotland through good fortune: had the former succeeded in buying the debt-ridden ABN Amro in 2007, instead of the latter, Varley might be as reviled and ridiculed today as Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. What a lucky man . . .

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.