The real winners of the Vince Cable debacle

Yep, the bankers!

I took part in a slightly bizarre but fun Today programme discussion this morning about whether or not we have a "Maoist" government. You may remember the remarks by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who told two undercover Telegraph journalists:

There is a lot of things happening. There is a kind of Maoist revolution happening in a lot of areas like the health service, local government, reform, all this kind of stuff, which is in danger of getting out of . . . We are trying to do too many things, actually.

He was also, we assume, one of the key cabinet sources for Andrew Rawnsley's column in the Obs last weekend:

I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

In fact, the truth is that we political journalists have short memories. Despite all the song and dance about Maoism, which prompted this morning's Today programme chat on Radio 4 (involving not just me, but the noted China and Chairman Mao specialist Jonathan Fenby) and led to the FT's "Mao rating" scheme, Cable actually used the Maoist tag in public more than a month ago.

From the Guardian, 12 November:

The abolition of regional development agencies by the coalition was a "little Maoist and chaotic", Business Secretary Vince Cable told a gathering in Birmingham last night.

Hmm.

Cable has a rather curious relationship with communist language, analogies and labels. As the politics lecturer Ed Rooksby points out over at Comment Is Free:

What is it about Vince Cable and communism? Barely a month seems to go by without Cable comparing others, or being compared himself, to something or someone related to it. In September, the Liberal Democrat minister was accused (implausibly) of being some sort of quasi-Marxist after making some mildly critical remarks about capitalism in a speech. In 2007, Cable made his memorable quip about Gordon Brown having undergone a "remarkable transformation . . . from Stalin to Mr Bean". While having his own Mr Bean moment, revealed this week, Cable was at it again. This time it was Mao.

Rooksby makes an important if provocative point at the end of his piece on Cable, the coalition and Chairman Mao. Like the Maoist government in China, he writes:

. . . this is, in an important sense, a class-struggle government – one acting consciously and directly on behalf of the rich. The role performed by the government in conditions of economic crisis is, all too often, to shift the costs of that crisis on to the poor and least well-off. The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it, and is setting about that task with great enthusiasm.

You might roll your eyes at the analogy, but which group of people, aside from the bosses and shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, will be rubbing their hands in glee this week at the sight of Cable's very public and humiliating defenestration? Yep, you guessed it, the bankers.

Here's the well-informed James Chapman writing in the Daily Mail:

The prospect of a crackdown on a £7bn bonus windfall for bankers is receding as a result of Vince Cable's weakened position in the cabinet.

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary had been leading demands for tough action as banks prepare to make a bumper round of payments.

Mr Cable's allies have suggested Britain should follow Ireland's lead and block bonuses at institutions part-owned by the taxpayer, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Cable built his reputation, in opposition, as the hammer of the bankers; in government for the first time in his life, he had the opportunity to help restrain the excesses, greed and irresponsible behaviour of our bailed-out financial elites. But no more. He is a diminished figure, lacking clout and credibility. George Osborne will be the man doing the deals with the bank bosses on behalf of the coalition and, as Cable admitted to the Telegraph duo:

We have a big argument going on about tax [on the bankers] and that is party political, because I am arguing with Nick Clegg for a very tough approach and our Conservative friends don't want to do that.

Osborne and his City allies might argue, in response, that the Treasury has already announced a levy on banks that will raise £2.5bn a year. But as the Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a member of the Treasury select committee, pointed out the day after the Chancellor's Spending Review on 20 October:

The government has opted to apply the levy over and above a £20bn allowance rather than using a threshold. Under a threshold, any bank with total liabilities of more than £20bn would have been taxed on all their profits, while under the plans announced today all banks regardless of their size will not be subject to the levy on their first £20bn of taxable liabilities.

A stipulation was included in today's plans that the levy will not apply to firms where 50 per cent or more of activity is defined as "non-financial". Because investment banks often have extensive and varied operations, this could allow firms to dodge the tax.

Figures obtained by Umunna through a parliamentary question in July show that the government only hopes to raise £1.15bn from the levy in 2011-2012 and £8.37bn in total between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 – less than half the government's total cuts to welfare spending of £18bn announced in the Spending Review. As Rooksby concluded in his CiF piece:

The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it . . .

Merry Christmas!

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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times