As the crisis continues, Labour just looks tired

If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

Shhhhhhhh. Quiet!! Labour is sleepwalking to the next election. Don’t wake it up. It might die of fright. Whisper. Don’t rock the boat. It's one more heave but without any heave. If it doesn’t move or make sound – then it might cross the finishing line of the election first without anyone noticing.

Next week, Labour is having its annual conference.  An event where nothing will happen. As I write, G4S or some other outsourcing behemoth will be putting up barriers around the Manchester conference zone to conceal nothing – absolutely nothing.

I’ve never known the run up to a party conference to feel so lame, so uninspiring, so flat and lacking in energy and vitality.  There are no rumours, no conflicts and little life.  Even the unions are silent.  I guess everyone must be happy. The election is in the bag. The next Labour government will sweep all before it and rule for a generation, creating Jerusalem in our midst. Oh, happy days.

Out there, in the wide-awake club, the ice caps melt, the eurozone teeters on the brink of collapse, the Tories rip the hope out of the lives of millions of young people, and the CBI calls for what’s left of the public sector to be privatised.  Neo-liberalism continues unabashed and untamed.

In fairness, Labour did have a half good idea about a British Investment Bank – but it was nicked by The Thick of It and then by Vince Cable. It's still got some other policies, like a five point-plan no one can remember, that would make virtually no difference to economic growth, and a promise to charge students £6,000 fees. Three thousand pounds more then they paid before but hey, £3,000 less than the Tories. Who says politics isn't about real choices? But it's giving little else away – that would be risky wouldn’t it?

Compare and contrast two things. First, Labour in 1994-97, when the party was last in opposition. There are no bigger critics of what became of New Labour than this happy scribe, but at least it had a sense of energy and ambition. Ideas frothed. New think-tanks bubbled up. Tireless work went into strategy and language. The "third way" was endlessly debated.  Of course, most of it turned out to be nonsense but at least the party had a go.

Second, look at the energy in the Tory party. Pushy backbenchers churn out tomes like Britannia Unchained that fizz with new policy ideas. Boris Johnson bounces round the fringes of the government – threatening a right-wing regime that is popular.  And Tim Montgomerie and chums set up Conservative Voice as an alternative government-in-waiting.  They all know where they want to take their party, the country and how. 

Labour, meanwhile, looks limp. Laid low to the level of a coma by an opinion poll lead that merely flatters to deceive. The decline of the Lib Dem vote just helps the Tories. The economy is bound to pick up. Of course, Labour might win – but what then? What do we do about the bond market, the public finances or the euro crisis? Labour is still hooked on the same political economy of setting finance free and redistributing the crumbs from the table. Hence its outright objection to a financial transaction tax (FTT) levied in Europe, making no attempt whatsoever to persuade the USA of its obvious virtue in stabilising markets and supporting essential social expenditure.

The party has nothing to say on public sector reform, nothing to say on welfare reform and nothing to say on climate change. If they have, then I, and everyone else, has missed it. Why not a genuine Green New Deal or an FTT? Why aren’t we pushing harder on a living wage, a German-style KfW environmental bank, real separation of retail and investment banking, new rules on takeovers, a national carers scheme, taxes on land and wealth and so much more?

This accidental or intended strategy seems to take its cue from the Australian Labour Party circa 1998-2001.  It was called the "small target" strategy. The party had almost been wiped out at the previous election and nervous shadow ministers decided the best chance to win was to stop rocking the boat and become a "small target" for Conservative attacks, on economic credibility in particular. If the party curled up into a tiny enough ball no one would notice and it might just win. But the ALP had no credible story that could capture the popular imagination or revive the party’s base. They lost even more seats.

I’m sure Ed will make a good speech – he might even make a great speech.  After all, he’s been right about responsible capitalism – but the age of the speech as a political lever is over. It’s now the age of emotion, action, campaigns and alliance building. Hope is loaded onto Jon Cruddas's policy review, but what if everything is vetted and stripped of any meaningful content? If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

The serious point is this. Capitalism has done two things – with devastating effect on Labour and the wider left. First it went up and then it went in. It went up to a global level– in so doing it cut itself free from any democratic accountability. Second, it went into our minds – as our identities and aspirations became steadily defined by what we bought.  The combination of financialisation and consumerisation destroyed the salience of class politics. Without a homogenous, organised and disciplined working class base Labour has become increasingly lost. It will stay lost until it finds or, better still, creates a new moral politics, new constituencies of interest and finally accepts that it's no longer 1945. The world has moved on and has become more complex and pluralistic.  Against the backdrop of the biggest crisis capitalism has ever suffered, Labour just looks tired.  

It's not as if the party is even being complacent – no one I talk to from the right or the left is under any illusion that winning will only be a slightly better disaster than losing.  Journalists and campaigners are gleefully calling and emailing me to express their relief that, for the first time in their lives, they aren’t going to conference. And who can blame them? Who wants to spend a week listening to Labour snore?

Sleep tight, my party.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Labour's annual conference opens in Manchester this Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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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