Yet again, the UK government has sided with the robotraders on a Robin Hood Tax

A financial transactions tax is the most economically efficient way to lessen the harm of HFT – but the government keeps fighting it.

Fifteen years ago the computer program Deep Blue made headlines around the world by beating chess giant Garry Kasparov. In the years since, computer algorithms have quietly gone on to dominate large parts of the financial markets.

Computer-driven trading now accounts for 70 per cent of trading in the US equity market, 36 per cent in the UK. Machines fire tens of thousands of trades a second, relying on state-of-the art technology and proximity to stock exchanges to shave microseconds off transaction times.

Yet tiny errors in the algorithms can have devastating consequences. During the infamous 'Flash Crash' of 2010 the Dow Jones index dropped nine per cent in a matter of minutes. Over the summer Knight Capital – a leading New York HFT (high frequency trading) firm – erroneously swamped the stock market with errant trades, wiping $440m from the firm's value.

That's why the European Parliament's powerful Economic Affairs Committee this week voted through legislation – the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II – designed to curb HFT. A key proposal being that trades will have to be posted for at least 500 milliseconds (currently traders can execute 10,000 trades during the same period).

Proponents of HFT argue their churning sea of trades brings liquidity to the markets. The reality is more capricious - in times of crisis traders pull the plug, draining liquidity when it is needed most.

Adair Turner described such corners of financial markets as "socially useless". The Financial Times recently said “hard evidence and common sense point to a host of social benefits from removing unnecessary intermediation and curbing predatory trading strategies”, adding that in some areas Mifid II was simply too mild.

It's no surprise that high frequency traders themselves have mounted a defence against the reforms. What's of more concern is that in the days preceding the vote the UK Government lobbied for them to be watered-down. Its official response did not support the call for HFT firms to hold equities for a minimum period.

Yet as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism revealed last week, of a 31-member panel tasked by the UK Government to assess Mifid II, 22 members were from the financial services, 16 linked to the HFT industry. A study by the Bureau last year revealed that over half the funding for the Conservative Party came from the financial sector, 27 per cent coming from hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms. This perhaps helps explain how the interests of a select group of traders get confused with the interests of the economy as a whole.

It's a similar story for the Financial Transaction Tax. No longer a pipe dream, European Governments of all political hues, including its largest economies, are working towards its implementation by next year. The tax of between 0.1 - 0.01 per cent on financial transactions offers a more effective mechanism to limit market excesses by making certain speculative trades less profitable. But crucially, it is also capable of raising billions in much needed revenue that would ensure the financial sector pays it fair share for the damage caused to our economy.

Yet the UK Government has again chosen to stand apart in blocking a Europe wide-FTT, turning down billions in desperately needed revenue that could help save jobs, protect the poorest and avoid the worst in cuts to public services. Instead, advice of previous Party Treasurers Michael Spencer and Peter Cruddas was heeded, who infamously lobbied against the FTT. Both incidentally own multi-million pound financial firms which would be hit by such a tax.

Taken together, this tells the story of a post-financial crisis Europe: as governments embark on the arduous task of making markets once again work in the interests of society, the UK Government remains intoxicated by the Square Mile - protecting vested interests and relying on the same market principles that got us into this mess to get us out again. Best brace ourselves for a bumpy ride.

The EU Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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