Tate that

A festive protest at a key London art gallery raises the profile of poor pay in one of the richest c

What do you need to earn per hour to support yourself in London? You won’t be surprised to hear that the national minimum wage of £5.52 per hour is nowhere near enough. In fact, research by the GLA’s Living Wage Unit shows that a wage of at least £7.20 per hour is what it takes to provide enough for the basics of life here in the capital.

Yet far too few of London’s workers receive this amount: around 400,000 Londoners fall into a ‘working poverty gap’, with their families receiving less than they need to get by. These families will be running up debts all year round, and as a result will be finding Christmas virtually impossible to manage.

So, that’s why I was more than happy to join the London Citizens’ living wage campaigners on Friday to sing myself hoarse as part of an audacious protest at the Tate Modern art gallery.

More about the protest itself in a second, but first I’ll explain why the living wage campaign is interested in the Tate gallery. South London Citizens (one of four major coalitions across London that make up the London Citizens organisation) has been trying to persuade the Tate to become a living wage employer for nearly a year, but still the board are refusing to ensure their 50 or so cleaners and catering staff are paid the London living wage of £7.20. Most of the cleaners are in fact on the national minimum wage and many have never received a pay rise above the minimum.

For a hugely successful gallery group, and one which is endowed with millions of pounds that came originally from the profits of a sugar industry that boomed thanks to slave labour, this is not good enough, so along we went on Friday to escalate the campaign.

A Christmas time protest at the Tate Modern is almost obliged to be both festive and arty, and the organisers had come up with something brilliant. It so happens that the gallery’s massive Turbine Hall is currently hosting artist Doris Salcedo’s installation of a 167 metre giant crack along the length of the hall’s floor, which appears to show the building literally coming apart. The piece is, among other things, a representation of the gap between the rich and the underclass in modern society, so it provided a perfect foil for our action.

Posing as a diverse range of ordinary art fans, around 100 of us waited for our signal (a lone singer and then lined up each side of the crack to link hands and solemnly sing together a range of Christmas Carols. After these songs, we filed out of the huge entrance doors – still singing – to join the more traditional union picket and brass band outside to continue performing seasonal songs with slightly doctored lyrics , including ‘we wish you a merry workforce’ (my favourite).

The effect of all this was so moving that we drew a large audience of spectators inside the gallery and the action inside was described on air as ‘incredibly impressive’ by the BBC reporter sent to cover it.

For me, the most impressive thing about the event was that a high proportion of the demonstrators were actual, in the flesh, vicars. This is because this highly radical campaign is being organised largely by faith groups and churches across London, alongside unions and student groups. Convinced by the rightness of their demands on behalf of the workers of London, these organisers are prepared to be more militant than most NGOs and are not afraid to be confrontational in their actions or scared to name and shame offending companies.

This radicalism means that they are really getting results, and hopes of eventual success with the Tate are therefore high. London Citizens’ work has already led to £10 million a year being paid in higher wages across London, with universities, hospitals and the Olympic Delivery Authority already committed to paying a living wage to their lowest paid employees. The Tate is clearly able to afford to pay all its staff decently, and the board cannot be happy at being shamed in such an eyecatching way at Christmas time by a group that includes so many Christians.

A similar protest at Citigroup in Canary Wharf at Halloween got a very quick response that means all their cleaners have the chance to support their families decently on their wages. In a city as rich as ours, there’s no reason why all big companies can’t do the same. I just hope we don’t have to send the vicars round to every one.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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