Banker-hatred expresses a longer, deeper crisis

Financiers' immunity from justice mirrors their insulation from recession.

Why are we so outraged by the Barclays-Libor affair? Silly question really. It is scandalous that traders appear to have manipulated a fundamental market-making interest rate in pursuit of a quick profit. It is emblematic of habits and ethics that steered the British economy onto the rocks in 2007-08. The detail of the story – the brazen emails that lay bare the scam – exude the arrogant sense of entitlement that presents the protagonists in a repulsive light. And it reminds us, when we see Bob Diamond, conspicuously unburdened by judicial investigation or conscience, that the caste of people with the strongest claim to have caused the financial crisis are the same ones who seem least afflicted by its consequences. That provokes our natural sense of injustice.

But there is another layer to public feeling about this issue. It was the subject of an event I attended this morning at the Resolution Foundation, the consistently excellent think tank that dedicates a lot of thought to the problems facing low-to-middle income households. They are famously squeezed (the low-to-middle income households, that is; Resolution are hardly even cramped in their lovely spacious West End office and, outside of Westminster, are not all that famous).

The key observation contained in Resolution analysis – available on their website – is that wages and earnings for most people in Britain stopped growing some time in the middle of the last decade. As the cost of basic goods and services has risen, a process accelerated by some painful bursts of inflation in the last couple of years, people are struggling to keep their heads above the water. Crucially, this process started before the crash and before the recession. It is also a phenomenon recorded in many other developed economies and is especially pronounced and protracted in the US. (For a brilliant account of how wage stagnation is hollowing out the American middle class, read this essay by Ed Luce in the Financial Times. Behind a paywall, sadly.)

In the UK, the trend for decline in wages and the attendant slide in living standards was held back by the growth of tax credits. Shadow Chief Secretary Rachel Reeves spoke at this morning’s event and mounted a vigorous defence of tax credits – generally scorned by the coalition as a tool of deranged Brownian micro-management and first in line for cuts. The other way Britons topped up stagnant wages was private sector borrowing: credit cards, store cards, re-mortgaging, high street lending etc. That, needless to say, was not a terribly sustainable route to prosperity.

An important point that Resolution make (and that Reeves touched on but with characteristic caution) is that, when growth returns to the UK economy, there is no reason why it should do so in a way that solves the longer term structural squeeze on incomes. This is not some abstract question of economic balances. It is probably the issue that will decide the next election. On current trajectories, the overwhelming portion of British voters will reach 2015 feeling poorer, less secure in their jobs - if they have one - and less hopeful for the future than they did in 2010. And that is true even if the economy is growing.

Downing Street are alert to the problem. One reason why fuel duty rises were scrapped this week is that David Cameron and George Osborne badly need to find ways to signal that they have noticed how hard many people are finding it to make ends meet.

One Number 10 advisor told me recently of his conviction that politics for the next decade will come to be dominated by the decline in living standards for ordinary households and the question “so what are you going to about it?” I think he is probably right.

And it is against that backdrop that the Barclays scandal has to be seen. It is not just offensive in some abstract judicial way. It isn’t just scandalous as a case of bad regulation and wickedness unpunished. Seeing what bankers have been up to and suspecting that they might get away with it, when they have escaped the financial consequences of their actions and preserved their rising incomes, is a vicious, sneering affront to the British people. Politics itself will be devalued - more than it already is - if it fails to offer an effective response to their anger.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain