Balls shows he's no "deficit denier" at the TUC

The shadow chancellor was heckled as he warned that Labour would cut too.

Those who denounce Ed Balls as Labour's "deficit-denier-in-chief" should have watched his speech to the TUC conference this morning. While the shadow chancellor made a typically persuasive case for short-term stimulus, he went on to use some of the toughest language we've heard from him on the need for spending cuts and other austerity measures to reduce the deficit in the long-term. To cries of "rubbish!" from trade union delegates (a rebuke that won't have troubled Balls in the slightest), he said:

We must be honest with the British people that under Labour, there would have been cuts, and that – on spending, pay and pensions – there will be disappointments and difficult decisions from which we will not flinch.

Balls went on to reaffirm the position he outlined in January - that Labour, based on current trends, will have to keep "all these cuts". He could not "make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts." Unlike Nick Clegg, he quipped, "we will not make promises we cannot keep".

When challenged in the Q&A session on Labour's failure to oppose George Osborne's public sector pay freeze (and the 1% cap from 2013), Balls replied that "you can't say pay before jobs, we've got to say jobs before pay"  ("shame on you!", one delegate shouted). Asked if the party would take the railways back into public ownership (a demand that prompted the loudest cheers of the session), Balls replied that the policy would cost billions and so the answer was 'no'.  "I’m not sure when we come into government in 2015 that expenditure on that scale is going to be a priority," he said.

Balls's speech was a reminder of why the next election will, in some respects, be more difficult for Labour than the Tories. Osborne likes to say that the coalition is cleaning up "Labour's mess" but, if elected in 2015, Labour will need to clean up his. When the Chancellor delivered his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, the newly-established Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a deficit of £37bn (2.1% of GDP) for 2014-15. But the failure of Osborne's plan to deliver growth (indeed, its success in delivering recession) means that, according to the latest independent forecasts, the next government will inherit a deficit of £96.1bn (5.8%), a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.

Given these fiscal constraints, the biggest choice facing Balls and Ed Miliband is whether to pledge to stick to the Tories' spending plans for the first few years, as Labour did in 1997, or to offer a distinct alternative.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls told the TUC, "we will not make promises we cannot keep". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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