Paul Krugman said Labour was "weak". Source: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan interviews Paul Krugman: Labour is "weak" in its opposition to cuts

The Nobel economist is scathing in his criticism of the two Eds.

In person, Paul Krugman is short, shy and quiet. But the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist isn’t afraid to hurl verbal hand grenades at his opponents – as I discovered to my amusement when I caught up with him on a visit to London this past week.

Krugman, who was in town to plug his new book End This Depression Now!, struggled to find anything positive to say about the EU’s leaders, President Barack Obama or the Israeli government. But it was the Princeton University professor’s comments about the Labour Party that stood out for me.

He was scathingly critical of Labour’s “weak” opposition to the Conservative-led coalition’s spending cuts. “Certainly, economically, they’re too cautious,” he said, dismissing the party’s plan to halve the deficit over four years.

His comments will make uneasy reading for the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, who are petrified of being tagged as “deficit deniers” by their right-wing critics. Under pressure from the Blairites inside the party, they have been trying to find the right balance between opposing the coalition’s austerity measures in the short run and supporting deficit reduction and cuts in the long run.

Krugman seemed to have little sympathy for them: Labour’s position on austerity, he told me, “has been a kind of ‘We’re like them but only less so’. And it does come across as fairly weak.” He continued: “It does seem odd that when you ask me: ‘Where is the really effective intellectual opposition coming from?’, it seems to be think-tank people and journalists. The opposition is Martin Wolf [of the Financial Times], Jonathan Portes [of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research], Simon Wren-Lewis [of Oxford University], David Blanchflower [of the New Statesman] and me.”

That, he said, is a “sad commentary” on the state of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

To add insult to injury, the Nobel laureate had high praise and much sympathy for Miliband’s predecessor, the much-maligned Gordon Brown. “He has been treated unfairly by history,” he said. “Yes, [Brown] made mistakes, but he is a much better guy than his current reputation suggests.”

I asked Krugman if he stood by his now-famous October 2008 description of the former prime minister as the leader who “saved the world financial system”. The economist nodded furiously. “Yes, he took the lead on the financial rescue which did save the world,” he told me. Without [Brown’s leadership], things would have been much, much worse. He was a smart guy.”

Krugman, a long-standing critic of the European single currency, was also keen to remind me how it was Brown who, as chancellor of the exchequer during the late 1990s, “kept Britain out of the euro. It would be a catastrophe here if Britain were in the euro.”

My full interview with the professor will appear in the New Statesman later this year.

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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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