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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.